Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Smuggler #5: The Crystal Fortress


The Smuggler #5: The Crystal Fortress, by Paul Petersen
January, 1975  Pocket Books

Perhaps proving out my theory that the Smuggler series actually had two authors, with Paul Petersen and David Oliphant trading installments, this fifth volume sort of returns to the sleazy feel of the second and third volumes, whereas the first and fourth volumes were anemic in that regard. But it’s nothing to get excited about, as this series is still pretty lackluster – about the best thing is the cover artwork, which by the way continues on the back for each volume, so you really get two covers per volume.

One thing that remains true is that each volume has an unsteady opening. First we’re watching as Dr. Rudolph Balencroft oversees the launch of a new orbiting satellite that’s like a precursor to Star Wars technology (the Reagan kind, not the movie), chucking evilly to himself that the government who forced him to do these jobs will soon pay. Then we’re on an old steamship named Le Havre that’s been turned into a pleasure cruiser, where Eric “Smuggler” Saveman is enjoying vacation.

Saveman, that ultra-perfect bastion of maleness, quickly disposes of his latest conquest, some bimbo he found in second class, and returns to appreciating himself in the mirror of his first class suite. But then he’s really pissed to receive a coded message from his boss, General Velasco, requesting that Savemen spy on a KGB operative named Tyziac who also happens to be on the ship(??); instead, Saveman hooks up with a pair of hot sisters, Lori and Lyla Claiborne, super-rich scions of an engineering dynasty, headed by their grandfather, Wiley, who also happens to be on the ship.

The sleaze returns, but it’s not as page-consuming as it was back in Fools Of The Trade; when Saveman has the expected sex scene with the sisters (who inform him that they grew fond of having sex with each other back in boarding school), it’s pretty explicit, but it only lasts a few paragraphs. Then Saveman discovers the murdered corpse of Tyziac, which leads to an action scene in which Saveman receives help from a fellow agent, one who is posing as a shiphand. This boring action scene has the unique outcome that Saveman almost gets killed.

The Smugger series has never been shy about info-dumping – these authors clearly want to make their novels appear “realistic” – and we get lots of detail when, two weeks later, Saveman recovers enough to go to ZED headquarters in Connecticut and get briefed by his boss, General Victor Velasco. Long story short, Dr. Balencroft has absconded with the secret code that will activate six nuclear-armed satellites. However, that French dude, DeFleur, is also hunting him down, or something.

More interesting are the topical ‘70s touches. Saveman now lives in this sprawling bachelor pad in Connecticut, which he’s named Cascade. He goes there with Lori and Lyla, who have stayed on as his “nurses,” and they gawk at the opulent place, where everything is controlled by the telephone, sort of like the trailer in Operation Hang Ten. Saveman merely has to “dial up” whatever he needs, and it will happen, like for example gracing every room in the house with “the soft sounds of Quincy Jones.”

Remember how Saveman’s dad Doc got married in the previous volume and is now married to a blind lady Saveman refers to as “mom?” Well in case you’d forgotten, the authors remind us about it a bunch. This does lead eventually to a brief action scene at Cascade, as LeFleur’s goons attack the place. There’s a bit of gore as Saveman and his dad blow away a few of the guys, who try to escape on motorcycles. But it’s over too quick, and it’s back to the plot-building, dialog, and overly-described technological stuff, like we’re suddenly reading Robert Ludlum or something.

Even the sleaze element goes away – when Saveman screws one of the sisters in his Lambourghini while the other drives it, the authors telescope it. More sign of this is when Saveman boards a ZED-owned 707 and finds that the pilot is Myrna, that hotbod nympho who so eagerly (and graphically) screwed him back in Fools Of The Trade. The same thing happens here, but the authors do not describe it at all, just intimate that it’s about to happen…and then later inform us that Myrna’s flying her plane nude.

The action moves down to Montevideo, where Saveman parachutes out of Myrna’s 707. Here he stages a rescue of Wiley Claiborne, that 70 year-old millionaire whom we have just learned is one of “the 18,” ie the free agents of ZED. But Wiley’s been caught by one of the Russians who is also chasing Balencroft, and here we get another brief action scene, which culminates in Saveman and Wiley back on Myrna’s 707 and expressly ignoring Velasco’s orders to return to base. Instead, they head way south, where Balencroft has fortified himself in the antarctic.

The title of this volume has you expecting a bit of John Eagle Expeditor-style pulp, but sadly that is not the case. Even here the authors try to retain a feeling for “realism,”putting more focus on how our heroic trio have a hell of a time surviving the subzero elements, and less on the fun sort of escapism you want from these types of books. Even the titular “Crystal Fortress” turns out to just be a series of shack-like buildings Balencroft operates from, and unfortunately we don’t even get to see them, as instead Saveman gets in protracted battles from his downed 707, going up against hired thugs in Sno Cats and ski mobiles.

The ending is even anticlimactic, with everything centering around a toppling iceberg that Balencroft has fashioned his “fortress” upon. Meanwhile Wiley’s gotten his arm blown off, which sucks, because now he has to retire. The action here is at times nicely gory, as well as brutal, like when Saveman finally tracks down an injured DeFleur and slices open his thighs, there on the icy ground, and tells him, “Watch yourself die, mother fucker.” But these scenes are few and far between, and ultimately are lost amid the 220+ pages of tiny type.

Previous volumes have jumped around the place, style-wise, like in #3: Murder In Blue, which went from Blaxploitation-esque inner city crime to a supernatural finale straight out of The Mind Masters. The Crystal Fortress however stays true to its vibe throughout, but sadly it’s a bland and tepid vibe, with a too-perfect hero who does little to engender ready empathy.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Chameleon #3: Garde Save The World!


Chameleon #3: Garde Save The World!, by Jerry LaPlante
No month stated, 1979  Zebra Books

The third volume of the short-lived Chameleon series was also the last – and it appears to be the most scarce, these days. But when I read that narrating hero Vance Garde took on an army of female villains in this one, I knew I had to get a copy. Unfortunately, author Jerry LaPlante doesn’t turn in the story I was expecting.

For one, whereas the previous volume was goofy fun, if a bit overlong, this one’s just plain overlong, and the fun element seems forced. Even with a more promising foe and a broader canvas of action, Garde Save The World! is just sort of bland, a feeling not helped by Garde himself, who is particularly ineffectual this time out. Seriously, he spends the entire novel either getting knocked out or finding himself several steps behind his enemy, a militant feminist group calling itself DELILAH.

These evil women are another of the novel’s many failings. Instead of the rapacious, lustfully cruel pulp-style female villains I wanted, they’re more of a cold and monstrous sort, without even the flair of the villains in The Savage Women. They are, basically, Rush Limbaugh’s worst fears come to life, a legion of liberal feminists who studied engineering at Columbia and have now banded together to kill men so that women can control the world. But there is nothing fun about them, LaPlante apparently unwilling to capture the pulpish vibe he’s created; none of the “We’ll kill you, Garde, but first we’ll enjoy you,” sort of thing you’d expect, given the genre.

But then, Garde spends the majority of the novel not even knowing what DELILAH is; a recurring but unfunny joke is him saying “Who’s Delilah?,” as he thinks it’s just some woman. Meanwhile the back cover has clearly stated it’s a group of women, thus ruining this endless joke. This is just one of Garde’s many problems in this volume, as overall he’s on a higher buffoonery level than he was in In Garde We Trust, and spends practically the entire novel wandering around the globe in confusion. And getting knocked out.

LaPlante does open the novel with an interesting fake-out, though. Actually, he opens the novel with a flashforward toward the end, same as he did last time, with Garde about to buy it while scuba diving somewhere. But when LaPlante jumps back in time and starts the story proper, Garde is happily informing us of how he’s just gotten laid, and by one of his employees no less. Readers of the series will instantly assume he’s referring to Ballou Annis, Garde’s “assistant” whom he’s been trying to screw since the first volume. Instead, LaPlante pulls the rug out and informs us that it’s some recently-hired scientist-type lady; Garde and Ballou have still failed to fully consumate their mutual attraction.

Once again we get little understanding of how long after the previous volume this one occurs, and also once again Garde is pondering if he should disband his secretive VIBES initiative. I wonder if this would’ve been a recurring theme, had the series continued. If so, it would’ve become very annoying, as it’s already frustrating a mere three volumes in. Anyway, Garde is more concerned with his main venture, GSA, especially a project he’s working on with another recent employee, a gorgeous Iranian lady named Petrolea(!) who is helping the company with a new pultonium initiative.

Anyone who has read the back cover will of course realize Petrolea is a villain – we’re immediately informed she graduated from Columbia – but of course Garde doesn’t know this. To his credit, when the plutonium is later stolen from the GSA vaults (Garde and Ballou in the middle of a little sixty-nining when they’re interrupted by the phone call informing them of the theft), Garde soon deduces that Petrolea was behind it. Now begins the major thrust of the novel, which sees Garde chasing her and her DELILAH comrades around the world. He doesn’t go to the authorities due to the muddled reasoning that he could get in trouble for his plutonium being stolen, or something.

There are a lot of missed opportunities here. For one, Ballou Annis. While a vivacious personality in the previous book, this time she’s shoehorned out of the novel quite often. There’s a grating recurring bit where she keeps disappearing, and you miss her when she’s gone, as she’s more interesting than Garde. But then, LaPlante does provide a good running gag for Ballou; in her continuous war against injustice, this time she’s launched a campaign against pay toilets in women’s restrooms. In her pursuit of vengeance she’s arrested twice in the novel, which is the cause of a few of her disappearances from the text.

But as for the missed opportunities mentioned above, Ballou states early on that she knew Petrolea years before, as they both went to Columbia and were part of a women’s liberation group. I instantly assumed this was foreshadowing that Ballou herself might be in DELILAH – an assumption furthered by the fact that she soon thereafter disappears from the novel, during a flight with Garde to Mexico, which is where Garde has traced the stolen plutonium. But nothing comes of this. That Ballou was involved with an early version of DELILAH at Columbia is something that LaPlante does precious little to exploit.

Anyway, Garde, who thought Ballou was on the flight with him, somehow is so tired that he falls asleep before takeoff, doesn’t wake up until landing, and only then realizes his assistant isn’t with him. Now we have more buffoonery as super-intelligent Garde bumbles around Mexico, not understanding the language, and trying to figure out what he should do next. Have no fear, though, as this time Garde has brought along a weapon, one he hasn’t used since the first volume – a studded leather belt.

Yes, friends, Vance Garde’s weapon of choice is a belt.

Immediately hoodwinked by an undercover DELILAH agent, Vance is almost killed by the group’s hulking henchwoman, High Tess, who murders a hapless cab driver for fun. Garde is taken to DELILAH headquarters, which is located in one of those ancient Mayan temples that are hidden within a hill, but apropros of nothing the entire place is attacked by primitive “troglodytes” who attack the women. When these cavemen are later tainted by the plutonium, which they think is a god, Garde is sickened as he watches the DELILAH women use their incredible karate skills to sadistically murder off all of the men.

Garde manages to make off with some of the plutonium without being contaminated, and he hooks up with Ballou only to learn that she’d been chloroformed by a DELILAH agent back at JFK airport. They return to the States to figure out where DELILAH might strike next, and of course Vance and Ballou soon attempt to have sex in Garde’s office, on a couch that has a folding matress inside it. Instead, after much oral chicanery, they both get stuck inside the couch. Here we learn that Ballou has very long and thin nipples and also an “expanse” of thick pubic hair; this being the ‘70s, it must’ve really been something, as Garde several times refers to it as a “forest!”

Anyway, as you can guess, the tricky couch again prevents Garde and Ballou from fully screwin,’ and yeah the joke’s really gotten old by this point. Garde’s always going on about his “anger” and “rage,” which he claims is caused by injustice, but you’ve gotta figure his permanent case of blue balls must have something to do with it. Anyway, he and Ballou next head for Marrakech, where DELILAH has apprently fled to.

This entire sequence comes off like page-filling – per Zebra Books norm, Garde Save The World! is much too long – but it is salvaged by the too-brief appearance of an Arabic Jew who haggles with Garde. And once again Ballou disappears, and once again Garde’s clueless where she went. Of course it turns out DELILAH has her, and the Marrakech sequence culminates in an over-the-top bit where Garde chases Petrolea and her cronies on a plane, and they have Ballou, and they toss her out of the plane, and Garde jumps out of his plane and sky-dives to the rescue!

Finally, we’re in the homestretch. Now Garde has tracked DELILAH down to Florida. He knows he’s crippled their organization, and he’s also taken back most of the plutonium from them, but they still have enough to create a bomb that will achieve their goal to ransom the world (if all corporations and etc aren’t turned over to women, DELILAH will unleash their nuclear bomb). Speaking of DELILAH’s goals, it was interesting to read this book so many years after publication, where the vast majority of the things Petrolea complains about (ie women not in any positions of power in coproprations or entertainment or etc) are no longer a reality. In fact, one could argue it’s now reversed.

The finale features Garde suiting up in scuba gear and taking an underwater channel that leads to the cave DELILAH operates from, which finally takes us back to that very opening scene. But it’s all anticlimactic, with Garde never once in the entire novel actually fighting these women; instead he throws “sonic disruptors” created in the VIBES labs into the cave, and it fucks up the women’s senses good and proper, and as Garde absconds with the plutonium the cave collapses, apparently killing off all of the remaining members of DELILAH. (Oh, and we learn what their acronym stands for: Destroy Entirely the Labia Invading Lordly Ass Holes. Seriously, that’s what it stands for. But don’t you think there should be a hyphen between “labia” and “invading?”)

All that taken care of, Garde and Ballou think they finally have a chance to screw; I mean come on, people, at least they have their priorities in order. So they drive to a nearby hotel and proceed to get busy, LaPlante again serving up all of the juicily explicit details. I thought he might at last just be done with it, have them screw and actually climax together and be done with it, like Charlie Brown finally kicking the football, and the unfunny recurring bit could go away. But nope; after lots of description of mutual noodling and fondling and almost screwing, the roof of their hotel is blown off, Florida being hit by a freak tornado. The end.

While I never applaud the abrupt ending of a series, I can’t say I’m sad there were no more volumes of Chameleon. I’ve only read two installments, and I’ve already grown annoyed with Garde’s constant questioning if he should continue fighting crime, not to mention the dude’s inability to screw a nubile woman who constantly throws herself at him. I mean seriously, what the hell kind of a men’s adventure protagonist is that? No wonder his adventures only lasted three volumes.

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.