Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Marksman #10: Open Contract


The Marksman #10: Open Contract, by Frank Scarpetta
March, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

The previous volume of The Marksman ended with Philip Magellan on the French Riviera, where he was planning to continue waging his war against the Mafia in France. So then it only makes sense that this volume opens with Magellan in Houston, Texas, with absolutely no mention of the events of the preceding two volumes!

Obviously, continuity was never a concern with the publishers and editor of The Marksman; something especially apparent when you consider that this volume was actually written by the editor, Peter McCurtin. As in #7: Slaughterhouse, Open Contract starts cold with Magellan on a new job in a new city, with no references to anything that came before, other than a cursory mention of his slain family, years ago.

McCurtin’s Magellan, who I guess you could argue is the “true” Magellan given that McCurtin created the guy, is nowhere as sadistic or psychopathic as co-writer Russell Smith's. He doesn’t drug people, he doesn’t torture people, and in fact he lets several Mafioso live this time around, even offering safety for a few of them! While this serves for a more-heroic protagonist, personally I prefer the wacked-out version of the character delivered by Smith.

But anyway, Magellan’s in Houston, and anyone hoping for any local color will be disappointed. I’ve never even been to Houston, but I think I could bring the city more to life than McCurtin, who does nothing to even make it appear that Magellan’s in Texas; it’s just some random city populated by Mafioso, and it has a harbor area. I mean, I’ve lived in Dallas since 1996, and I think I’ve only seen four or five Italians here in that entire time, but whatever, Houston circa 1975 was crawling with mobsters who’d just arrived from Sicily.

Believe it or not, the plot of Open Contract is incredibly simple. Magellan in his typical omniscience knows that Don Tomasso DiGrasso runs the Houston Mafia, and Magellan’s plan is to sow dissent in the ranks. To accomplish this he first easily blows away a pair of hoods in a restaurant owned by one of DiGrasso’s top men, Duke Pavione. Now, Pavione spots Magellan in the opening pages, calling the don, who calls in the hoods, but later the don states that no one knows what Magellan looks like. So how then did Duke spot him??

McCurtin of course doesn’t care about such details. And also, despite the hyperbolic back cover copy that Magellan is “armed with the most sophisticated weapons in the world,” McCurtin’s take of the character actually uses less-“sophisticated” weapons than Smith’s version, in particular a .38 pistol for his left hand and a .44 Magnum for his right. He also occasionally breaks out a Luger, which McCurtin has as being this incredible “machine pistol” capable of mowing down armies of men.

Magellan (and I just realized “Philip Magellan” sounds very similar to “Peter McCurtin,” doesn’t it?) takes captive Duke and his restaurant waiter, Rocco, and forces them to show him where the don’s latest shipment of heroin is located. This leads to another brief skirmish on the docks of Houston, and while Duke and Rocco sit handcuffed in the trunk of his car (for which Magellan apologizes!!), Magellan blows away a few goons and then burns all of the heroin.

These opening fights are sort of bareboned, so far as the violence goes, and it’s interesting that as the novel proceeds it gets more gory, with McCurtin eventually describing the impact of each of Magellan’s bullets. But anyway, through some “crafty” maneuvers Magellan plants seeds that Duke has joined up with him, telling Magellan where the heroin was located, and we get many long scenes in which Don DiGrasso sits around in his “fortress-mansion” and ponders over his traitorous ranks.

Strangely, for the guy who created and edited the series, McCurtin turns in the worst (or perhaps the least memorable) volumes of The Marksman. This one is no different, with a sluggish yet still harried feel to the whole thing, with no spark to any of it. There aren’t even any of the bizarre, non sequitur touches like you’d get in one of Russell Smith’s installments. Magellan’s basically a cipher, an omniscient and omnipotent “crimefighter” whose only concern is quashing the Houston Mafia.

And unfortunately, the few interesting touches are quickly dropped. For example there’s a Godfather bit where Don Digrasso calls in his “executioner,” Luca Boito, who you’d no doubt guess is clearly “inspired” by Luca Brasi. The don orders Boito to take out first Duke Pavione and then Magellan. A sadist who enjoys his work, Boito offers a lot of promise, but he’s quickly dispensed of, and not even by Magellan, as McCurtin instead works in more of a betrayal plot with the don’s bodyguard, Salvatore Belguardo, deciding to help Duke.

Meanwhile Magellan sits around in his hotel and cleans his guns, even employing an unwilling Duke on an assault on the don’s heroin manufacturing plant, which is located in some nondescript rural area outside of Houston. Here Magellan restages World War II, breaking out a mortar and blowing away the goons from afar. Also Ken Barr’s typically-great cover comes into play, sort of, with Magellan hoisting a submachine gun and hopping through shattered walls to blow away survivors.

All of the plotting/betrayal stuff is also quickly dispensed of, with McCurtin anticlimactically killing off various characters in the final pages,during Magellan and Duke’s assault on the don’s mansion. This sequence continues with the increasing gore factor, with copious detail of heads exploding and whatnot. One thing missing, you’ll notice, is the sex quotient; there isn’t a single female character in Open Contract.

There’s also no lead-in to the next volume, as all-mighty Magellan easily dispenses of the Houston Mafia. After the novel’s endless climax of him and the don going mano a mano with revolvers, Magellan shoots Digrasso, then uses his “carnival” training to leap several feet to the ground beneath the don’s bedroom window. Magellan then blithely strolls for his rental car, his mission here complete. The end!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Narc #6: The Beauty Kill


Narc #6: The Beauty Kill, by Robert Hawkes
March, 1975  Signet Books

The sixth volume of the Narc series is full-on blaxploitation; hell, Superfly is even namedropped on the cover. Yet again our hero, John Bolt, is lost in the colorful shuffle, Marc Olden focusing more on his vast cast of street-wise villains.

Also as usual, The Beauty Kill has no pickup from previous volumes; the Narc series has never really had much continuity, other than the recurring characters (none of whom ever mention the incidents of previous volumes, anyway). Like Narc #4, this one takes place during a hot summer, right in the middle of July, and again Olden reminds us so forcefully of the oppressive heat that we break out into a psychosomatic sweat. But then, I read the book late in August in Dallas, so I didn’t need much help.

The title is in reference to Black Beauty Saxon, an uber-handsome Superfly type who makes his money heisting drug dealers and other criminals. Beauty (as he’s usually referred to by Olden and the others) dresses to the nines in mid-‘70s wardrobe, in particular a light blue jumpsuit which he leaves open to the navel so he can show off his Zodiac medallion! (And once again the cover artist has perfectly captured the characters in the book, as well as a handful of the incidents that occur within.)

The aftermath of a Beauty heist starts off this particular volume, as Beauty and his three goons have made off with $850,000 and lots of heroin, stolen from Harlem drugrunner Calvin “The Blue Star” Otis, who got the money from his rich white male kingpin, Charles Kingsley, aka King Charles. Another series motif is John Bolt getting hurt quite often, and The Beauty Kill opens with our hero half dead, shot twice (and his partners killed) after stumbling upon the heist, which takes place in Washington, D.C.

Bolt’s head wound is just a “scratch” and the side wound he bandages up, dragging himself into his boss’s office and demanding he be allowed to handle the case. After getting his way, Bolt is again connected with the two fellow narcs who have helped him in the past books, Masetta and Kramer. The trio go around New York trying to determine who was behind the opening heist which left two narcs dead. This entails many scenes where they go into Harlem and Bolt is fearful of starting riots.

Olden per tradition places a lot more focus on the villains. In particular we get the tension among Beauty’s goons, mostly caused by Joe Heston, a white convict who is sick of Beauty’s preening and just wants his money from the score, pronto. Calming Heston is Noah Amos, another white guy, and the one who recommended Heston as being part of the job. Finally there’s Clay Cooper, a black member of the group who later on inadvertently allows Bolt to infiltrate the group, posing as a former cop looking to make it big.

There isn’t as much action in The Beauty Kill as in other volumes of the series, with more focus on plotting and planning. There isn’t much sex, either, with most of it shown as yet another plotting/planning move, like how Beauty sleeps with a plump black lady who works for Calvin Otis, preparing his cocaine and heroin. When Otis deduces that this woman is likely the person who blabbed about the drug deal which lost him the $850k and the heroin, he sends some thugs over to her apartment, while Beauty happens to be there; this leads to a crazy scene where Beauty blows the poor girl away and escapes naked.

Actually, naked black men fleeing through the streets of New York City is a recurring theme in The Beauty Kill; it also happens again later, this time to Clay Cooper. Makes me wonder if Olden had recently read James Mills’ Report to the Commissioner (or had seen the movie, which would’ve been released around the time he was writing this), which climaxes with a similar incident, of a naked black drugdealer running through the streets and holing up in an elevator.

Meanwhile Bolt puts clues together, soon figuring out that Black Beauty was behind the $850k/heroin steal, and that Otis and King Charles are looking for him. In particular the narcs are looking to bust King Charles, whom they have never been able to pin anything on. There are a few chase scenes, but really no action until toward the end, when Bolt and team capture Clay Cooper, a former cop himself, and convince him to play along. Cooper, injured by Otis’s thugs, lies to Beauty that he was hurt in a car wreck, and recommends fellow “former cop” Bolt as a perfect replacement.

It’s all like Miami Vice ten years earlier and in a different city as Bolt, undercover and unarmed, tries to both convince Beauty that he’s legit and also to figure out where Beauty’s big upcoming heroin deal’s going to go down. Meanwhile King Charles has hired a pair of gunmen to kill Beauty. But this is a Marc Olden novel, where no character follows a straight line, and soon enough the gunmen are looking to cut in on the action themselves. It all leads to a tense firefight in a stinking tenement building, and believe it or not for once the villains are actually disposed of, either killed, injured, or arrested. This seldom happens in the world of Narc, where the villains escape and are never mentioned again.

Speaking of never being mentioned again, each volume Bolt’s had a different lady love, and it’s kind of funny that they’re never women he meets while on the current case; instead, they’re women who are presented to us as already being a part of Bolt’s life, and very important to him. This lends the series a bit of unintentional comedy, as these women only appear for one volume and are never mentioned again!

This volume’s “Bolt girl” is Doreen Priddy, a “sexy bitch” (!) who apparently is a bit of a feminist; Olden puts more focus on her ten-year-old son, who is a brainiac who consistently beats Bolt at chess. Olden serves up a regular “happy family” image for the three, adding more unintentional comedy to the series by informing us that Bolt and Doreen have been together for a year! So I guess he just forgot about her in previous volumes, or who knows, maybe Bolt is in multiple serious relationships. The novel does take place in the ‘70s, after all.

The Beauty Kill was okay for the most part, but didn’t pull me in like some others in this series have, and I wish there had been more focus on Bolt and action and less on the internecine stuff among Beauty’s followers – though this part does feature a memorable (but goofy) scene where Beauty, “hiding” underwater, drowns one of his men in the deep end of a public pool, and no one notices!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Sharpshooter #11: Triggerman


The Sharpshooter #11: Triggerman, by Bruno Rossi
January, 1975  Leisure Books

Russell Smith returns to the Sharpshooter series in what appears to be yet another of Smith’s Marksman manuscripts that was turned into a Sharpshooter novel. At first it’s hard to tell, as for once the editors managed to change most instances of “Magellan” into “Rock,” but as the novel progresses you can clearly tell this is indeed a Philip “Marksman” Magellan novel – especially when, about 90 pages in, the “Magellan” goofs start to pepper the text.

Anyway, Triggerman opens with no pickup from any previous volume, with Don Ricardo “Rick” Tattilo getting out of some mystery prison in New York (“A –”) where he’s spent the past two years. We get lots of background detail on Tattilo, an obvious page-filling gambit on Smith’s part. We also learn that the only reason “the Rock” hasn’t come after him yet is because Tattilo’s been in the joint since Rock started his campaign against the Mafia. Now that he’s out, Rock is coming for him.

At first I thought this novel was a straight-up Johnny Rock story, as early on Smith has Rock reflecting back on the murder of his mom and dad and etc, all of them murdered due to the family business, which the mob wanted a piece of. As die hards know, this was the origin story of Johnny Rock, as told in #1: The Killing Machine. However, on the very same page, Smith also has Rock reflecting back on his mob-murdered wife and son, and as die hards also know, this is not Johnny Rock’s backstory – it’s Philip Magellan’s.

But no, this is really a Marksman novel, with “Rock” displaying the expected Magellan characteristics, from obsessing over his “Valpak and artillery case” to even wearing “nylon cords” around his waist (to bind whatever thug he happens to beat senseless). There’s also Magellan’s fondness for stripping and tying up captives, keeping collections of them stored away for future torturing. He also enjoys donning disguises, another Magellan penchant, and Smith mentions that one such disguise is one “Rock” hasn’t worn “since Puerto Rico.” This is likely a reference to The Marksman #5: Headhunter

Now, how about the actual novel itself? Triggerman really isn’t that bad, and is on par with pretty much everything else churned out by the human typewriter that was Russell Smith. As usual you can tell the dude was winging it as he went along, with tons of incidental detail dropped early on but hardly any of it amounting to anything in the actual text. Things just sort of happen with little rhyme or reason. Magellan/Rock murders with impunity, walking around in a “hippie disguise” and blowing away mobsters with his silenced Beretta.

Triggerman also operates on Smith’s usual fondness for lazy coincidence. For one, after getting intel from an old black guy named Mickey the Fish (who apparently was saved by Magellan/Rock a year before), our “hero” checks into a hotel in Manhattan, where he later discovers, nestled in a courtyard behind it, an old “Quaker meeting hall” from which both heroin is distributed and a sort of kinky sex parlor does business. There’s also an old treehouse back there, which “Rock” soon uses to hide the gory mobster corpses he creates.

Meanwhile Tattilo holes up in the Manhattan apartment of Eleanora Constantini, the gorgeous 35 year-old madam who runs his lucrative whoring business. Smith for once delivers several sex scenes, all of them featuring Tattilo, particularly when later he stays in the Hotel Irwin and bangs Marge, neglected wife of the drunk mobster who runs the place. These scenes in particular are pretty sleazy, with Smith busting out all sorts of exploitative detail, to the point where Triggerman is the most sex-filled installment of the series yet.

Smith’s customary coincidental plotting again rears its head when Tattilo, fearing Magellan/Rock is going to find him, leaves Eleanor’s apartment and heads to the Hotel Irwin (which Smith sometimes mistakenly refers to as “Hotel Irving”). Guess where Magellan/Rock’s staying? That’s right, in the very same hotel. Not that “Rock” instantly discovers this; he’s too busy sneaking around in that courtyard around the hidden Quaker hall, murdering mobsters with his silenced Beretta and hiding their corpses in the treehouse.

Smith also as usual adds in goofy humor, with Tattilo one morning looking out over nearby Gramercy Park and seeing the Quaker hall beneath his window, scoping his binoculars over it…and seeing all those gory corpses. Yet he tells no one, because he’s certain people will think he’s nuts(?). When he calls over fellow don John Tedesco to check them out, guess what, “Rock’s” just rented a panel truck and lugged each corpse onto it, so that they’re all gone when the two mobsters take another look down there with binoculars.

“Action” is relegated to the usual Smith sadism, with an early scene featuring Magellan/Rock shooting up several mobsters in the lobby of Eleanora’s apartment building (this being the incident that really sends Tattilo into paranoia, eventually causing him to move to the Hotel Irwin). This scene too is goofy, because “Rock” wants to get upstairs to kill Tattilo without anyone seeing him, yet just a few sentences later he’s shooting one Tattilo guard after another, to the point where there’s a crowd of onlookers and the cops are rushing to the scene.

Magellan also has a penchant for picking up cleaning ladies (seriously), and not only does Triggerman open with “Rock” already being friends of sorts with a maid named Clara Green (which makes me wonder if this character will appear in another Smith Marksman/Sharpshooter installment), but towards the end he rescues from sexual servitude another maid, Maria. In another of the novel’s sex scenes, we see how Eleanora Constantini “forces” Maria to sleep with her, and the girl is super-happy to escape with “Rock” at the novel’s end, with the clear implication that she’s going to stay with him for a while.

The finale is pretty weird. Magellan/Rock stages a raid on Eleanora’s lush suite, blowing away scads of mobsters and then “literally slapping the shit” out of Eleanora herself! After the already-mentioned rescue of Maria (who throws herself all over “Rock”), our boy heads back to the Hotel Irwin…where all of the villains have conveniently congregated in one of the apartments. Magellan/Rock loads up his Uzi, kicks open the door, and blows everyone away! To add an even stranger tenor to it, “Rock” then goes over to the corpses and steals the cash out of their wallets!

Maybe it’s a weird Marksman/Sharpshooter hybrid who stars in Triggerman; on pages 132 and 142, he’s referred to as “Philip Rock!” It should say something that I found more interest in rooting out the editorial maniuplations, but all told Triggerman isn’t really that bad. It has a sleaze quotient missing from other Smith contributions, and for once the plot is tied up in a single novel – messily tied up, but at least it comes to a conclusion.

And Ken Barr’s cover, as usual, is great.

Monday, October 13, 2014

John Eagle Expeditor #10: The Holocaust Auction


John Eagle Expeditor #10: The Holocaust Auction, by Paul Edwards
April, 1975  Pyramid Books

Robert Lory turns in his final contribution to the John Eagle Expeditor series, and in his interview with me the other month Lory rated this installment as his personal favorite. At 158 pages, not only is The Holocaust Auction shorter than other volumes in the series, but it also features some notable differences.

For one is the way in which the novel is told. The traditional Expeditor forumla has followed the same outline: an inciting incident; a long scene with Mr. Merlin in Hawaii assessing the situation; an introduction of John Eagle; a Merlin-Eagle briefing in Hawaii; and then on to the mission itself, which takes up the rest of the narrative. Lory dispenses with this formula and instead tells the first half of the novel in a sort of out-of-sequence format.

The inciting incident remains in the opening, though, per tradition, as in a long but well-done sequnce we meet Dr. Hamlin Goddard, an American weapons specialist who is currently under heavy guard in a secret base near Washington, DC. Eventually we learn that Goddard has created a new smart bomb, but when we meet him he’s a virtual prisoner here, “for his own protection.” But then a small group, lead by a “round Chinese man,” breaks into the base and kills everyone, leading to the unsettling denoument in which the “round” leader decapitates Goddard. Interestingly, the assassins are armed with dart-firing gas guns very similar to John Eagle’s.

Eagle, who for once is in New York, has his briefing with Mr. Merlin in a Wall Street office building, one of Merlin’s many secret locations. Lory telescopes through the traditional briefing sequence, instead cutting in the next chapter to days later, and Eagle’s already on location in Nepal. Lory backfills us from here on, with Eagle getting in scrapes in the “present” and then flashing back to what he was briefed on a few days before. In some ways this is similar to how Andrew Sugar wrote the Enforcer books.

Of the three authors who worked on this series, it seems to me that Lory took the most care in making it all seem to be the work of one writer, ie “Paul Edwards.” Per his comments in his interview here on the blog, Lory tried to ensure some sort of consistency in the books. Here he refers to previous Eagle adventures, and not just the ones he wrote; for example, in this volume we get references to #1: Needles Of Death (Eagle journeys to Base Camp One, Nepal, which he visited in that first volume, even meeting the same people), #4: The Fist Of Fatima (in particular how Merlin gifted Eagle with a lifetime’s worth of good brandy for a job well done!) and #5: Valley Of Vultures (a reference to the “Neo Nazis” Eagle once fought).  But as I expected, there is no mention of the thumb injury Eagle suffered in the crazy previous volume.

Eagle, in Nepal, first must fend off the whores offered him by the staff of Base One(!) and then he makes his way on foot through Nepal and on into India, tracking a beacon signal. But John Eagle must have his native booty, and sure enough it turns out that one of those Nepalese whores follows after him – cue a pretty explicit sex scene, where the gal, Veena, shows off her oral skills for a very impressed John Eagle. Eagle’s all business, though, and once they’re finished he tells Veena to scram so he can get back to tracking the beacon that’s leading him into India – a beacon which Lory tantalizes us as being “in the belly of a whore.”

Yes, whores are pretty prevalent in The Holocaust Auction. As it develops, again via backstory flashback, Mr. Merlin employs a high-class pimp in India for intelligence-gathering purposes, as the pimp provides entertainment for all manner of people. It just so happens that this guy has retained an order for a few high-class girls to entertain someone in the middle of nowhere, India, and figuring this might be the site where Goddard’s appropriated smart bomb tech will be displayed, Mr. Merlin has one of the whores outfitted with a secret tracking beacon device.

The titular auction is being held in Meerut, India, which we’re informed is 50 miles northeast of New Delhi. It’s being put together by Chirundhar, Dr. Goddard’s former assistant, and three people have been invited to the auction to purchase the weapons tech: Colonel Dyuzhev of Russia, Colonel Wu of China (a woman, by the way), and none other than Father Tan, wily Triad ruler who first appeared in #3: The Laughing Death (which fittingly enough was the first volume of the series Lory wrote). The whores have been purchased to provide entertainment, and the prettiest of them, Flavia, a young Indian woman with “perfect breasts,” is the one who wears the tracking beacon, hidden in a belt of diamonds.

Again per tradition, Eagle has to make his way through lots of tough terrain, as usual clad in his plastic suit with chameleon device. Unlike fellow series authors Manning Lee Stokes and Paul Eiden, Lory has Eagle’s outfit featuring a more-believable “hood and face mask,” whereas the other two authors provide him with a motorcycle-style helmet (which makes one wonder how “chameleon” the suit could actually be). This time Lory adds more touches, like a pair of “flat, non-reflective googles” Eagle can snap into place over the hood, allowing him to see in infrared. But this is strange, as in previous Lory volumes Eagle didn’t have to go to such lengths; the infrared feature was apparently already built into the mask’s lenses.

John Eagle himself is a bit different this time. The back cover describes him as a “hired assassin extraordinaire,” and I thought that was mere copywriter hyperbole, but Eagle really does come off this way in The Holocaust Auction. Several times he refers to himself as “Death,” and he appears to relish in killing off the superstitious Gurkha mercenaries employed by Tan, taunting them before killing them. Eagle here also relishes in the act of killing itself, particularly when Tan’s mercenaries murder Veena, the Nepalese whore who stupidly follows after Eagle; he spends pages fantasizing over how he’s going to kill all of Tan’s mercenaries. In a way Eagle’s kill-lust in this novel is almost a callback to Lory’s first Expeditor novel, The Laughing Death, where Eagle worried that he might one day become a “thrill-killer.”

Father Tan turns out to just be posing as a potential bidder, and Chirundhar is merely his employee. Eagle, listening in on the conversation thanks to a high-tech “listening tube,” is first shocked to discover that Tan, a man Eagle thought he had killed, is still alive – and immediately swears to correct his mistake. (It’s also stated in the text that the events of The Laughing Death occurred in 1973.) Eagle also figures out how Goddard’s smart bomb is about to be tested. He sneaks aboard a DC-3 from which it will be dropped for the viewing bidders below, the entire proceedings broadcast for them via a TV camera installed in the plane.

In his interview Lory specifically mentioned “a happily drunken ex-RAF DC-3 pilot” who stood out in his memory of this novel; as it turns out, this character, Captain Ashley Struthers, only appears for a few pages, but he is memorable. Eagle kills off the men in the back of the plane and then orders Struthers to circle back around to the secret bidding location, so Eagle can drop the smart bomb on it, and Struthers eagerly obliges. Eagle almost kills him, too, but then decides to let him live; one because Eagle knows the pilot is harmless, and two because, in a humorous moment, Struthers has misheard Eagle and Tan’s conversation on the radio and thinks Eagle’s name is “Regal.”

The finale goes by pretty quickly; Eagle commandeers the plane, drops the smart bomb, parachutes out, and mops up the Gurkha survivors on the ground. Heeding Merlin’s request that he “spare the whores,” Eagle also ensures that they all get out on a minibus, which leads to a nice martial arts fight where the “round” Chinese henchman poses as one of the whores(!) and gets in a savage brawl with Eagle. As for Father Tan, Eagle achieves his goal of ensuring the Triad ruler is really dead this time, but it’s a little anticlimactic, with Eagle blowing up the plane the old bastard attempts to escape on.

In fact the shortened length of the novel and the quick wrapup prevents another scene I figured would be coming: the Eagle/Flavia shagging that you’d expect would be mandatory. While it does happen – indeed, Eagle gets all seven of the whores – it’s only intimated in the narrative, with a brandy-drinking Mr. Merlin back in Hawaii being presented with a bill from the Indian pimp, due to Eagle and Captain Struthers having absconding with all of the man’s whores for a full week. Also we learn that Eagle’s recommended that Struthers be given a job in Merlin’s organization, which hints that the character might have reappeared if Lory had written another installment.

But this was it for Lory, and the series from here on out bounced back and forth between Stokes and Eiden. While The Holocaust Auction was entertaining, I wouldn’t rank it as my favorite of Lory’s volumes; here’s how I would in fact rank them: The Death Devils (probably my favorite volume yet in the series), The Laughing DeathThe Fist Of Fatima, The Holocaust Auction, and The Glyphs Of Gold.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chameleon #2: In Garde We Trust


Chameleon #2: In Garde We Trust, by Jerry LaPlante
No month stated, 1979  Zebra Books

A rare example of a late ‘70s men’s adventure series,* Chameleon ran for three volumes and was unusual for a few reasons. For one, like Decoy we have here a series where the title has nothing to do with the actual book – our hero does not refer to himself as “Chameleon,” and he doesn’t have any chameleon-like talents for disguise or anything.

Also like Decoy, this series is told in first-person. Personally I don’t think this style is suited to the men’s adventure genre, but at any rate Jerry LaPlante (a real person, not a house name; here’s his website) does a good enough job with it. Also the book is very much in a goofy or at least comic spirit; nothing too spoofy or outrageous, but enough so that you know it’s all intended in fun. Actually, sort of like Roger Moore’s ‘70s James Bond movies, now that I think of it, where there’s violence and danger and people get killed, but it’s all done with a knowing wink. (This is why I’ll always prefer Moore’s films to today’s dour, oh-so-serious James Bond movies, which to tell the truth I despise.)

Garde is similar to another obscure men’s adventure protagonist – Colin “Big Brain” Garrett. Unlike Gary Brandner’s creation, though, Vance Garde is actually fun. He’s super smart, somewhere in his 30s, and has gotten rich from GSA: Garde’s Scientific Associates. But in the previous volume Garde’s sister died of a heroin overdose or something, and an incensed Garde created a secret subsection of GSA, called VIBES (Vindication against Injustice, Bureaucracy, and Ensconced Stupidity).

The words that make up the acroynm “VIBES” not only sound like something out of Pynchon, but also further display the goofy tendencies of this series. At any rate, in the previous volume Garde gained his vengeance upon the Anaconda, some sort of drug dealer. In Garde We Trust opens some indeterminate time later, though not too long; Garde’s uncertain what to do with VIBES, now that his vengeance has been achieved, and he doesn’t know if he should go after other bad guys or just dissolve the entity.

Causing Garde’s indecision is the lovely Ballou Annis, Garde’s super-sexy assistant whom Garde apparently met in the previous volume. Only a handful of people even know VIBES exists, Ballou being one of them, and she and Garde have a friendly, pre-PC sexual infatuation thing going, with both openly admitting they want to have sex with each other but something always getting in the way, literally. Seems like this was a recurring joke in the previous book, and it is here, too, with for example one overlong sequence having them about to get at it, but their belt buckles getting locked together.

Ballou sounds like my dream girl – she’s a svelte brunette who’s just as smart as she is sexy, and, like Garde, she enjoys getting “revenge” on people for the slightest of infractions. This is a running theme in the novel; Garde is dedicated to “vindication” against “injustice,” but his definition of such things is pretty liberal. One of the things about the book that made me laugh out loud is that Garde gets pissed at everything, and we see him ranting about matters as irrelevant as horseradish scoops to how some cities charge you for parking outside of restaurants.

But Ballou’s the same, and maybe even more easily-incensed; another running gag has her using Pavlovian tricks (yet another Pynchon reference, perhaps, from Gravity's Rainbow) in vengeance against a neighbor who likes to have his dog shit in Ballou’s yard. Over the past few weeks Ballou’s been ringing a bell every time the dog squats to crap; now it squats anytime she rings the bell, and her plan is to call her neigbor in the middle of the night, so the dog will shit in his house. It’s all pretty elaborate, but personally I’d find a smart and sexy girl who went to such lengths for petty revenge damn irresistible.

Whereas the first volume saw Garde getting revenge for his sister, the plot of this second volume has Ballou getting vengeance for her brother. We eventually learn that he’s gotten hooked up with “the Lunies,” ie green robe-wearing followers of a cult started by Father Sol Luna, a Vietnamese guy who now reclusively lives somewhere in Montana and has absolutely no relation to the Reverend Sun Moon. The Lunies stumble around, unwashed and dazed, warning against the evils of Satan, and as if to again prove how goofy the book is intended to be, LaPlante baldly introduces them apropos of nothing and then, a chapter or two later, “stuns” us with the revelation that Ballou’s brother is also in the cult.

Meanwhile Garde and Ballou have had an encounter with a young female Lunie, who has died in the hospital; the puzzled doctor informs them that the girl had a cyanide pill in her tooth, which she bit when the doctor tried to remove her robes. They’re further stunned to discover an electrical chastity belt wired to her, something which apparently all members of the cult are forced to wear. If they become sexually aroused, they get zapped. This riles up Vance Garde good and proper, and when Ballou learns that her brother is in the cult – and is trying to get his inheritance from her, the boy being younger than the 21 demanded by their parents’ will – the two decide that VIBES shall indeed continue on, and that its resources will be channeled against Father Luna.

In Garde We Trust is not the most action-centered men’s adventure novel you could read. In fact it’s more in the cerebral realm (well, sort of), with Garde more often using his intelligence to gain vengeance. This entails lots of stuff that other readers might find more interesting than I did. Like for example how Garde infiltrates Father Luna’s cover plant of Montana Nuclear Energy; Garde approaches them representing GSA and telling them he’s interested in creating a radiation-detecting device they might find useful. Cue lots of info on how this gizmo is created.

The “action” stuff is usually relegated to Garde getting knocked out or held at gunpoint. Garde uses his fancy book learnin’ to take on the bad guys, which despite being sort of unusual considering the genre, kind of robs the novel of much dramatic thrust. Like when Luna’s men kidnap Ballou and tell Garde she’s dead if Garde doesn’t hand over the radiation detector (which it turns out Luna wants so as to locate the army’s hidden stockpile of nukes in Montana). But first Garde must create the device…and it takes him two weeks. Not much of a “ticking time bomb” suspense factor, there. In fact time really moves in In Garde We Trust, with the narrative occuring over a few months or so.

The back cover hypes Garde as this tough s.o.b. who doesn’t take shit, and truth to tell he is pretty brutal. He kills his victims in unsettling ways, like Dr. Athol, an Asian dentist who works for Luna. It turns out the Lunies are brainwashed by high-tech dental implants Athol puts in them, and dumbass Garde gets one implanted in his own tooth midway through the novel. When he gets payback on Athol (whom he calls “Asshole”), Garde ties the bastard into his dental chair and tortures him with dental equipment like drills and whatnot, and then numbs his throat muscles and watches happily as Athol chokes to death!

Garde spends most of the novel flying back and forth to Montana, and it all plays out more on a suspense angle than slam-bang action. In fact I don’t believe there’s even a single scene where Garde picks up a gun. He also flies a lot, and we get copious description of flying small planes, as well as hiking material…Garde is an expert hiker and mountain climber, so cue lots of egregious detail about this, including an endless sequence where he’s chased by a bear. In fact this sequence opens the novel; like the Enforcer books, the Chameleon novels open toward the end of the current caper, in a life-or-death moment for the protagonist, and then move backwards to the beginning.

The finale as well plays out more on the “brainy” angle; rather than grabbing a gun and storming Luna’s headquarters, Garde instead spends another few weeks researching Athol’s brain-controlling device and figuring out how he can tune it to Luna’s brainwaves. This results in an overlong climax in which, during a live televised sermon in Madison Square Gardens, Luna’s id is freed thanks to the mind-control waves Garde sends into Luna’s brain from a hidden transmitter, with the end result the cult leader ranting about his “slaves” and how much more money he wants from them. This leads to mass chaos, as well as the bloody end of the cult. Here too we have the final appearance of Handjob, Luna’s monstrous henchman who also appeared in the previous volume (working for the Anaconda).

The writing is good, if a bit flabby; I felt there were too many instances in which Garde would go on for several pages about whatever device he was currently devising. LaPlante is very skilled at dialog, though, particularly with comedic banter. Garde and Ballou trade one-liners throughout the novel, most of them being of a punning nature. Sometimes this gets to be a bit too much, but LaPlante has a definite gift for it, with some of the verbal gags running for a few pages and being laugh-out-loud funny.

And while the novel’s pretty high-brow, at least so far as its protagonist goes, LaPlante gets very lowbrow at times, like when Ballou’s trapped in one of those chastity belts, but one that’s wired to blow if Garde’s plane drops below a certain altitude. (This scene definitely has a “ticking time bomb” suspense factor, by the way.) And on an even lower-brow note, the novel ends with one of the most distasteful scenes I’ve ever read, when Ballou’s dog-owning neighbor, driven insane, breaks into Ballou’s house, drops his pants, and takes a shit on her coffee table!

The “will they/won’t they” deal with Garde and Ballou goes from funny to annoying and back to funny again. After the overlong bit with their interlocked belt buckles, a later scene has them caught up in a particularly vigorous bit of sixty-nining that inadvertently causes Garde’s water bed to burst. Also their sexual shenanigans extend beyond foreplay, with the two of them engaged at one point in what a friend of mine once memorably described as “full-blown sex,” though here too they are distracted before achieving the, uh, climactic moment. I should note that these sex scenes are the only sex scenes in the novel; Garde is pretty committed to Ballou, and never puts the moves on other women, like your regular men’s adventure protagonist would.

Anyway, despite being a bit too long (a Zebra Books speciality) and maybe a little too goofy for its own good, In Garde We Trust was actually enjoyable enough that I sought out the third and final volume, the apparently-scarce Garde Save The World!, and immediately started reading it.

*According to Michael Newton’s How To Write Action Adventure Novels, the reason men’s adventure series disappeared from bookstore shelves around 1976 was due to the energy crisis. Other than those from mainstays Pinnacle, there really were no new series started from about ’76 to ’79, and even those were short-lived. It wasn’t until Gold Eagle came on the scene in the early ‘80s that the genre was revitalized.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Marksman #9: Body Count


The Marksman #9: Body Count, by Frank Scarpetta
February, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

Picking up immediately after the previous volume, Body Count is yet another installment in the continuous Marksman storyline author Russell Smith developed, with sicko hero Philip Magellan blitzing into the French Riveria and killing mobsters. It’s also a lot more cohesive and enjoyable than that previous volume.

It’s strange, because Body Count was published a mere month after Stone Killer. But for the most part the rough and hurried feel of the preceding volume is gone, this time out, with Smith taking a little more care with his story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still messy as hell, with Smith’s typical disdain for grammatical and storytelling rules, but at least it isn’t as messy as Stone Killer.

However, anyone expecting a direct pick-up from that previous installment will be in for a bummer. Terri White, Magellan’s one-time sidekick, is so gone for good that she isn’t even mentioned. And Hilda Rau, the sexy German dominatrix who Magellan sort of lusted after in Stone Killer (that is, while he was abducting her and “sadistically torturing” her), is apparently dead. (This point in particular is indication of Smith’s lazy writing – early Magellan regrets that he left Hilda tied up, but still alive, in her room, but later in the novel it’s clearly stated by Dante Monza that she’s dead, having been “blown up.” Of course, this could just be a misconception of Monza’s, but at any rate Smith doesn’t bother letting us know what the actual truth is.) 

Even Magellan’s burning drive to kill Dante Monza is sort of lost; Magellan arrives in Beausoleil, by the Riviera, driving back and forth to nearby Nice, and scopes out the circuses that have been set up in the two towns. Monza owns the bigger one, and here we learn that it’s a traveling disguise for his mobile heroin lab, or something. As usual Smith shoehorns in lots of expository information about the mob’s operational methods, and here we learn how much money they make from refining and selling heroin.

And also per Smith’s customary coincidental plotting, Magellan just happens to discover that the two guys staying above his room in the hotel in Beausoleil are Interpol agents. There’s also Anna Nessi, this volume’s version of Hilda Rau, a brunette mistress of Dante Monza’s who is determined to make Monza fall in love with her. For reasons Smith doesn’t make clear, she flies to Paris to check out the destruction Magellan wrought in the previous volume, then flies back to Nice and books the room beside Magellan’s, without telling Monza what she’s doing.

Then the girl strips for Magellan and offers herself to him, to which Magellan responds by slapping her and telling her to get dressed! Apparently the girl’s plan is to seduce Magellan and then entrap him, so that she can serve him up for Dante Monza…or something. Smith doesn’t bother informing us, and he further disappoints with this storyline by straight-out killing off Anna Nessi with no warning or even forethought! Magellan comes back to his hotel room to find the girl nude and slashed to death; we learn that it was Monza himself who killed her, driven to a fury when the girl told him she’d tried to sleep with Magellan, or something.

Magellan captures Monza, drugging and stripping him per his normal style, though Magellan isn’t sure it’s Monza...even though we readers know it is?! Sometimes I like to imagine Russell Smith banging out his manuscripts while chain-smoking joints, and parts of Body Count only serve to give credence to that theory. But anyway, Monza gets free, because, uh, Magellan just left him naked and chained in his hotel room, and Magellan comes back to find the man gone…not that much really comes of this, because Magellan eventually just captures him again!

Oh, and meanwhile Magellan has picked up some fancy “karate” tricks between volumes. I’m going to wager that Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon had recently come out when Smith was writing this installment, or at the very least the early ‘70s kung-fu craze was in full gear. Because in a goofy action scene midway through, where Magellan takes on some toughs in a circus food tent, our hero is “somersaulting” around his opponents and launching devastating punches and kicks. This scene also further serves to display how Smith’s installments of The Marksman are intentional camp, as, after killing everyone, Magellan leaves payment for his meal on the table and walks out.

Speaking of time between volumes, we’re also here informed that The Sharpshooter #3: Blood Bath was “months before.” Time is sort of eclipsed, anyway, as Magellan was shot in the thigh by Hilda Rau in the final pages of Stone Killer, but he has apparently walked it off. He gets shot again in Body Count, taking one in the shoulder, and reflects that he’s getting hurt more here in Europe than he ever did in America! But instead of heading back home, Magellan instead hooks up with a new female sidekick, a British gal named Sarah Wilson who is 23 and works as a cleaning lady in Magellan’s hotel.

Sarah’s just as fucked up as Magellan, for, in between calling him “sir” all of the time, she invites Magellan back to her home (where Magellan again turns down a woman’s offer of sex, which Sarah takes in stride) and is only momentarily shocked to discover a bound and beaten Dante Monza in the trunk of Magellan’s car. But then, when she learns who the guy is, Sarah goes all batshit, saying how her girlfriend got hooked on heroin from Monza’s circus, and before you know it she strips down, breaks out a whip, and starts lashing the shit out of the guy!

In fact Monza’s a bloody pulp by novel’s end, though still alive, and apparently gives Magellan enough info to topple the European mob. This makes the second installment in a row in which Magellan has whipped a captive until he or she has spilled the beans. But major mob figures introduced in the previous volume, like Luigi Perrone, are still alive, and it would appear Smith intends to play this out in yet another volume that will see Magellan waging his weird war in Europe.

I guess we’ll just have to find out!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Death Squad #1: Gang War


Death Squad #1: Gang War, by Frank Colter
January, 1975  Belmont Tower Books

In 1975, Manor Books published the five-volume Kill Squad series, which was about a trio of cops who liked to bend the rules in order to take down the guilty. That same year Belmont Tower published Death Squad, a two-volume series that was about a trio of cops who liked to bend the rules in order to take down the guilty. 

“Frank Colter” was the credited author for Death Squad, and “Mark Cruz” was credited for Kill Squad. However, both authors were one and the same – Dan Streib. It seems to me that he put more focus on the shorter-lived series, though, as judging from this first volume Death Squad is worlds better than Kill Squad, which, at least if the second volume was any indication, was pretty lackluster and tepid. Death Squad #1, while not perfect by any means, at least serves up plenty of action and heaping helpings of gore.

Also, whereas the Kill Squad trio were hyped on the back cover as rulebreakers but in reality weren't so much, the dudes in Death Squad (never actually referred to as such in this first volume) really are asskickers of the first order, to laughable extremes. Throughout the novel they’ll give their lieutenant the finger and then blithely announce that they’re about to “go off duty” so they can kill criminals without any fear of reprimand or any red tape getting in the way!

Unlike the Kill Squad, the Death Squad is comprised of men only: first there’s Sergeant Mark Sanders, 31, a ‘Nam vet who is the star of the show, just as Chet Tabor is the star of the Kill Squad series. Next there’s Sam Durham, a big, muscular, Jim Brown-type black cop. (The black cops are always Jim Brown-types in these books.) Finally there’s Raul Gomez, a stocky Hispanic patrolman who gets the least amount of narrative time in Gang War (the title by the way has zilch to do with the actual plot).

These three San Diego cops have apparently been working as vigilantes together for a while; Streib isn’t very clear about this. He also has a half-assed rivalry between Gomez and Durham that seems to come and go. Also, these three aren’t partners, at least so far as it goes officially; in fact the novel opens with the gruesome and unsettling murder of Sanders’s new partner, a young black officer who has just joined the force. 

Responding to a rape call, the duo arrive to find the perpetrators, a pair of young white men, rushing away. However due to all those goddamn rules and procedures, Sanders is unable to pull his gun until he’s certain he’s in danger. Meanwhile one of the perps, hidden behind a bush, whips out a gun and shoots Sanders’s partner right in the crotch. Streib doesn’t shirk on the shiver-inducing details; as if this wasn’t enough, the poor bastard gets shot again, and lays there waiting to die. Again, due to the damn rule book, Sanders is unable to leave the side of the rape victim, a young Hispanic girl, and the perps get away.

But when Durham and Gomez show up, Sanders promptly gives his lieutenant the finger, goes “off duty,” and chases after the rapists on his own! This entails the first of many action sequences, however the perps escape. Handily, though, Gomez reveals that he’s taken a pin from the rape victim’s hand; it’s an image of joined nautical knots, and it apparently fell off of one of the rapists. Instead of turning this in as evidence, the three decide to use it to root out the culprits, and break up to investigate the various local yacht clubs to see if this is the logo of any of them.

Of course, Sanders strikes gold at his first yacht club, where in the midst of a bunch of rich, snotty college-age kids he meets the ravishing Jessica Kane. Here the uber-wealthy sit on their yachts and have endless parties, and Sanders instantly runs afoul of them, in particular two college punks, Robbins and Talbott, both of whom are sons of highly-influential pillars of San Diego society. Jessica comes on strong to Sanders, even inviting him home, though Streib is firmly in the “fade to black” category when it comes to the actual screwin’.

Not only is the framework of this series similar to Kill Squad, but it also shares some of the same plot developments. Namely, just as Chet Tabor went back to his apartment in Dead Wrong only to walk into an ambush, so does Sanders go back to his apartment and receive a mysterious call that the place is about to blow. This sees more overdone gore as Streib lovingly details a poor airline stewardess/next door neighbor getting blown to bits in the explosion – capped off with the dark humor “punchline” of Sanders announcing that he just “slept with her last week.”

Gradually we learn that the Death Squad is dealing with the Terrorist Liberation Army, regular hippie terrorists, of the spoiled rich kid variety. Sort of like in Father Pig, or, more accurately, Len Levinson's The Terrorists. The Squad dishes bloody payback to one of them, the above-mentioned Talbott, who immolates himself after a sort-of-endless chase aboard one of the yachts. This leads to a vendetta against our three heroes, who meanwhile are brought before the commisioner and mayor and etc and accused of being fascists and the like. In response Sanders whips out that middle finger again and tells bigshot lawyer Robbins that his son is probably one of the Terrorist Liberation Army.

The climax is another nice action movie-esque scene in which the TLA hold several people hostage in the sprawling San Diego zoo, and of course Sanders goes in alone to free them, with Durham and Gomez on the sidelines to provide backup. This is a fairly violent scene in which Streib again relishes in gorily killing off women, first with a grandmother who gets shot in the head (complete with detail of her eyeballs popping out) and later, a .44 Magnum-armed Sanders shooting one of the female terrorists right in her most private of areas! (And the poor girl lies there in numbed shock as she slowly dies, while Sanders kneels over her and berates her!)

Streib is not good at building up mystery, and it’s painfully obvious someone Sanders trusts is secretly in the TLA – so obvious, in fact, that Durham and Gomez basically slap Sanders in the head and tell him to snap out of it and realize that Jessica Kane is working with them. And of course, this turns out to be the case, with one of the more casual “reveals” in a finale yet, as Jessica comes out of the veritable hippie-terrorist closet, announcing herself to a chest-shot Sam Durham (who despite what sounds like a fatal wound survives). 

Streib gives us an unsettling finale, in which Sanders, who has just discovered that Jessica is a terrorist, announces that he had been falling in love with her and was even thinking of marrying her…and then he shoots her point-blank in the head! Once again we get detail of how a girl’s face explodes, including how her cheekbones splash out on Durham’s lap – and, mind you, she wasn’t even aiming her gun at Sanders when he shot her! So in other words, he just plain murders her.

And that’s it, the end. Certainly it’s over the top, but really that’s what I want from these grimy men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s. There is nothing heroic about Sanders, Durham, and Gomez, and they’re presented as straight-up murderers. What’s more, they’re very open about their desire (and enjoyment) of killing criminals. It’s funny, because you realize that “the book” and the rules and regulations and etc are all there precisely to prevent such murderous fascism on the police force; so in other words, these three basically create the very “red tape” they bitch about.

There was only one more volume of Death Squad, which I can’t be too sad about; while Gang War was entertaining, at least so far as the overdone tone and gore went, there really wasn’t anything that special or memorable about it.