Monday, July 22, 2019

Moscow At High Noon Is The Target (Hot Line #3)

Moscow At High Noon Is The Target, by Paul Richards
No month stated, 1973  Award Books

Curiously the final volume of Hot Line isn’t copyright Lyle Kenyon Engel, like the first two were, which makes me suspect this short-lived series suffered the same fate as the Engel-produced Nick Carter: Killmaster: total control eventually went over to Award Books. But anyway Hot Line never really got off the ground, only managing three volumes.

Thanks to Spy Guys And Gals we know this one was a collaboration between Chet Cunningham and Dan Streib. Streib co-wrote the previous volume, and his stamp is frequently evident here, particularly when protagonist Grant Fowler whines about how tough his life is and desperately wishes to quit and get married. Streib’s action protagonists usually lack any balls, as most notably demonstrated in the Engel-produced Chopper Cop series. Like “tough cop” Terry Bunker, Streib’s Grant Fowler is a worry wart who is determined to quit the spy game asap and find some woman to marry. This is a far cry from the grizzled asshole who starred in the first volume.

There’s no pickup from either earlier volume, though we are informed Fowler has only been the President’s man for a few “months.” Fowler when we meet him is in Copenhagen, still successfully perpetrating his wealthy gadabout cover. Now he’s hawking a new business venture called Antique Aircraft Inc, which specializes in rebuilding exact replicas of WWI airplanes and staging mock aerial combat around the globe. There’s a lot of flying material in this one, about as much as you’d encounter in the average William Crawford novel, and it gets to be boring after a while.

This is too bad because the opening of the novel’s pretty cool, promising more thrills than what is ultimately delivered: a group of commandos, possibly American, stage daring, bloody heists behind the Iron Curtain. They’ll hit armored trucks, banks, whatever, taking out guards and innocent bystanders with subguns and explosives. The commie powers at be are convinced America is behind these attacks, and tensions have escalated to the point of WWIII. The President of course decides to call in his sole Hot Line man, Grant Fowler.

It seems to me that Cunningham handled the brunt of the writing duties; the book reads very similarly to his work. But it might be Streib who writes the occasional cutovers to the President and his secretary, who deal with their own somewhat-boring subplots in DC while Fowler handles the action overseas. I say this because these scenes are page-fillers with fretting, worried protagonists wondering what might happen next; there’s a lot of stalling and repetition. Personally I think some of the opening heists could’ve been more fleshed out.

More info on the heisters would’ve been wise, too; as it is, we only get to read about “The Commander,” who leads these American servicemen turned criminals. They operate out of Berlin and use surplus military gear in their raids. It’s dangled as a mystery who the Commander is, but gradually the puzzle pieces together until we realize it’s one of two characters, both of whom happen to work with Fowler on the assignment. This group calls itself The Brigadiers, and their next heist will be particularly audacious: the theft of Lenin’s embalmed corpse, on display in Moscow.

Fowler only knows that something’s going to be stolen in Moscow, so must get over there without blowing his cover. Luckily Antique Aircraft is scheduled to take part in a mock WWI battle in that very commie city, so Fowler’s able to get himself in the show due to the fact that he’s a pilot and he’s the owner of the company. He heads over to Frankfort, Germany (and yes, it’s spelled “Frankfort” throughout) to take over the preparation for the mock combat, and finds time for some shenanigans with Elaine Katz, the hot brunette pilot who runs the European branch of Antique Aircraft – and I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Fowler’s already had some off-page shenanigans with a blonde babe in Copenhagen.

Here in “Frankfort” Fowler meets two men who will add the mystery to the narrative, as one of them is the Commander of the Brigadiers: first there’s Okie Bob Arnold, a CIA man with “mod clothing” and a flashy moustache who has been sent to help Fowler on his assignment, and next there’s General Sloane, an older retired military man who is flying one of the planes in the mock combat. Cunningham kills the mystery posthaste, as one of these men makes a phone call and next chapter Fowler finds out Elaine’s been killed in an airport “accident,” chopped up by prop blades. Cunningham tells us which of the two men made the call, totally blowing any chance at mystery. I couldn’t believe he was so brazen about it. Particularly given that the rest of the narrative tries to play the reader along over which of the two men is really Fowler’s enemy.

Fowler’s bummed over Elaine’s death – which occurs like an hour after they sleep together – but soon enough he’s checking out bikini-clad Maria at the General’s place. She’s been sent along from Moscow as a sort of state rep to ensure everything goes well. There’s also some flatfooted suspense about whether Fowler can trust her or not, and honestly all this stuff comes off like the work of Streib, with a suddenly-wimpy Fowler moaning how hard it is for him to open his heart to a woman, due to how she could be an enemy just waiting to stab his back.

There isn’t much action. In Moscow Fowler and Okie Bob go to a bar frequented by circus freaks, a surreal setting that’s handled in Cunningham’s trademark meat and potatoes narrative style. Fowler’s deduced that the Brigadiers are using an old tunnel beneath the bar to sneak in and out of Moscow, paying the midget bar owner a fee for the benefit. Fowler slaps around the midget and then goes down the tunnel, promptly getting in a shootout with some unseen Brigadiers. He kills one with his .357.

He’s also found the time to get busy with Maria, and again I have to point the finger at Streib because here Fowler becomes a lovey-dovey sap. This is going to be his last job, no matter what, he’s done with the spy game and all the death and all that, and what’s more he’s going to bring Maria back to America and marry her and start a family. The authors basically telegraph what’s going to happen to Maria and don’t even try to be subtle about it. But then this was the last volume of the series, so hell, they could’ve just had the two go off for a happily ever after.

The Lenin corpse heist isn’t even the climax of the novel; the title comes into play because it’s learned that the Brigadiers will steal the body at noon, and Fowler manages to get in the viewing line at the right moment. He causes a scene and Moscow police intervene, stopping the ambush that would’ve caught them unawares had it not been for Fowler. After this we have the belabored mock aerial combat, with planes again factoring into the actual finale: Fowler versus the Commander, who plans to steal the Russian royal jewels or somesuch and fly away with them. His true identity is officially revealed in the final pages.

Overall Moscow At High Noon Is The Target was pretty lackluster. Grant Fowler never did manage to make himself memorable to the reader, with even his occasional gadgets coming off as lame, like the “deadline clock” wristwatch he wears which ticks away a time set by the President. I was more interested to find out if Engel just dumped the series on Award, disinterested in Hot Line himself. Readers certainly weren’t interested, and this was it for the series.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


Cocaine, by Marc Olden
July, 1975  Signet Books

This is basically the primer for Marc Olden’s Narc series, sort of the “nonfiction” version of it. I put that in quotes because for the most part Cocaine reads like fiction…many, many stories of drug dealers and the narcs who pursue them, with even the oddball “fact” coming off like fiction (like “the famous rock group” that was busted for coke possession and wrote a number one song about it, even sending the narc who busted them a thank-you note).

Like Narc, Cocaine started life at Lancer Books before moving over to Signet; this edition is “revised and updated” from the Lancer edition, which was published in 1973. But of course Narc was published under the pseudonym “Robert Hawkes” (even though each book was copyright Olden), so Signet lost a good co-sell opportunity. At least Olden’s Black Samurai series, also from Signet, gets a shout-out, though Narc would’ve made a lot more sense.

In fact, Olden’s main informant throughout Cocaine is “Jerry,” identified as an undercover narcotics agent for the DEA. Man how I wish Olden had gone all the way with it and named him “Jon,” ie Jon Bolt of fictional drugs enforcement agency D-3 in Narc. But I’m betting Jerry served as inspiration for Bolt; Olden thanks several people at the end of the book for their help in the research, with “Jerry” one of them, so I’m assuming he was a real person and that he factored into the creation of Jon Bolt.

Otherwise the contents of this book are identical to those in Narc, even with the same sort of arbitrary subplot-hopping. I’ve complained in more than a few Narc reviews how the narrative will abruptly jump into the almost stream-of-conscious thoughts of such and such a character. Well, that happens for the entirety of Cocaine. It’s basically one short-short story after another. And also Olden’s repetition is firmly in place – he’ll tell you the same thing at least three times.

But that’s cool, because this is one of the most “1970s” books I’ve ever read. I mean it could almost come with a pair of platform shoes. It’s all about hip black and Cuban coke dealers in all the fly fashions of the day, sticking it to the Man. And that’s another difference from earlier drug books, like Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. Whereas that one was more of a countercultural book, looking at the pleasures of marijuana and hash, Cocaine is more about the crime and the violence. There’s very little here that would tell you why people were going so crazy over coke, nor much about the effects they feel when under the influence. And for that matter it’s not even so much about the dangers of coke, other than a few mentions of ODs and such. It’s really more about the crime-ridden underworld that has sprung up around the cocaine industry.

Olden does tell us a little about the drug users in the opening chapters – basically all the hip people of the day, from artists to rock musicians to swingers. Pretty much everyone, when it gets right down to it. But the high rollers are the biggest users, because coke isn’t cheap; Olden tell us that it’s $25 to $75 per spoon, and that’s for heavily cut coke. More pure samples are not only pricier but harder to find.

One thing I can say I learned from this book is how cocaine is harvested and manufactured. Previously it was kind of a mystery to me. Basically it’s taken from South America and enters the US via New York or Miami, cut up and processed in various mills. The Mafia doesn’t have much control of it given the South American source, thus has focused its interests on oldschool crime like gambling and hookers. But really Cocaine offers a look at the environment which would create the crack epidemic of the ‘80s; increasingly violent black gangs and Cuban gangs vying for dominance of the coke industry. Olden says there’s no question the Cubans are more violent, and I wonder if this book factored into Oliver Stone’s script for Scarface.

The book follows the same format for each chapter. Olden will introduce some aspect of the coke industry, ie Dealing or Ripoffs or whatever, then will illustrate each aspect with pseudo-fictional short stories. I was most interested in the section on the mills, which are generally in bad areas of town and overseen by women, who monitor a small group of people cutting up the coke, all of them in masks. The ripoffs material was also interesting, and very heavy in that ‘70s crime vibe – “ripoffs” being the term for coke dealers ripping each other off. And as previously mentioned the Cubans are much more vicious in their ripoffs, or when they track down a ripoff artist; blacks are more content to frame the ripoff artist so that he’s arrested.

Things occasionally get sleazy, like a random chapter on pimps, hookers, and coke (and Olden’s description of the outrageous pimp wardrobes just has more of that super ‘70s vibe). There’s the occasional tale of a drug dealer’s superhuman sexual powers, thanks to all the pure-grade coke he’s snorting. Here we learn of the mysterious “Tortilla” practiced by Cuban dealers behind closed doors; a “lesbian orgy” in which women are piled atop one another, occasionally the wives of the dealers even taking part. There’s also “My Hero,” as Jerry refers to him, a Cuban dealer with such machismo that even a mousy and prudish DEA typist gets turned on as she’s transcribing one of his tapped dirty phone conversations.

There’s also a lot on mules, who bring drugs into the country via various novel means, and informants, generally dealers who’ve been caught and decide to work for the Man for a lesser sentence. Olden published a novel titled The Informant in 1978, also a Signet paperback original (and incredibly overpriced, but luckily now available as an eBook), so I’d wager this section factored greatly into that later novel. It already reads like a thriller here, with Olden stressing how dangerous the life of an informant is; once outed by their drug world comrades they are shown no mercy.

There isn’t as much about the narcs themselves; the DEA was fairly new when the book was written, or so Olden informs us, and we even learn that the drug cops had just started carrying weapons. But obviously the men’s adventure vibe of Narc isn’t present here, these stories being true (or at least presented as true) and thus more realistic in the brief snatches of violent action; there is though a nicely-done shootout late in the book which unfortunately sees a young DEA agent killed in action. Otherwise the lot of the narcs is presented as a thankless one; they aren’t out to bust hippies or the occasional drug user, just the big fish, and to do so they have to sit around for long stretches of time before putting their lives on the line. There are also some interesting stories about undercover jobs. 

Overall I enjoyed Cocaine more than I thought I would. It definitely has that ‘70s crime vibe I’ve always enjoyed, and the pseudo-fictional approach makes it a lot more entertaining than a typical study on cocaine would’ve been. It’s even the same length as one of Olden’s Narc or Black Samurai novels, coming in at 172 fast-moving pages of fairly small print.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Razoni & Jackson #5: Lynch Town

Razoni & Jackson #5: Lynch Town, by W.B. Murphy
December, 1974  Pinnacle Books

The final volume of Razoni & Jackson has “the tough black and white duo” spending the entirety of the narrative in Alabama, a comically overdone Alabama filled with racist rednecks who are eager to don their KKK robes at the drop of a hat. And this includes the town Sheriff. Otherwise Lynch Mob was my favorite volume yet in the series, even though our heroes are outside their normal stomping grounds of Manhattan and, as ever, there’s not much in the way of action or sex.

It’s certainly fast-moving, though. Warren Murphy’s skill is in the dialog, and he’s in top form this time, with fiery banter throughout. This is proven posthaste as we meet our heroes after they’ve been on the road together for several hours, Jackson driving and Razoni sleeping. They’re headed to New Orleans for a detective’s convention (the back cover incorrectly states Miami), and their respective women – Jackson’s wife Sara and Razoni’s girlfriend Pat – have flown ahead. Our cheapskate heroes gave the women their plane tickets, then “borrowed” a ’71 Chevy from the precinct for the drive south, even though the car’s not supposed to leave Manhattan.

The narrative picks up as the two decide to finally pull over for some food. The arguing here over Jackson’s driving, and his unwillingness to pull over for food or bathroom breaks, calls to mind the similar bantering of Philip Rock’s Hickey & Boggs, which I still say served as a huge inspiration for this series. Unfortunately Razoni picks little Pinkney, Alabama as the place to find a restaurant. From the get-go they are assailed by redneck yokels in the small town, but things really come to a head when the fat slob owner of a dive refuses Jackson service because Jackson is black.

Word to modern sensitive types – there’s a lot of racist invective throughout Lynch Town, which is humorous given that Murphy clearly wants us to understand the racist locals are the bad guys. But the dreaded n-word is tossed around a lot…and when Murphy does show black characters, even in a sensitive light, he has them shrieking stuff like “Hallelujah!” while having house parties. But clearly this sort of stuff isn’t intended to be taken seriously, and I imagine anyone actually seeking out this book (which is as scarce and overpriced as the others – and I still haven’t gotten the first volume due to that fact) will already know what they’re in for.

Razoni and Jackson don’t know what they’re in for, though; in a wildly over-the-top subplot, young Pinkney resident Flasher Potter is planning to knock over the town bank while wearing a rubber “Negro” mask with a wild afro. We’ve already learned that Flasher occasionally rapes women while in this disguise, secure in the fact that none of the victims will go to the cops due to being ashamed. All this sort of reminded me of the obscure low-budget 1974 crime film The Zebra Killer, aka The Get-Man and a bunch of other titles. It too featured a sadistic redneck villain who disguised himself as black.

One of Flasher’s victims was the wonderfully-named Tulsa Cuff, the pretty-in-a-tarnished-way young waitresses at Buford’s restaurant. And by the way, Buford is Flasher’s father; a recurring joke is that a large portion of Pinkney is made up of the Potter family. This bodes ill for Razoni, given that he smashes two raw eggs in Buford’s face for being a racist prick, then later slams his head into a car. Buford’s brother is the town Sheriff, thus Razoni is hassled good and proper for the remainder of the text.

The action highlight occurs early on. Flasher robs the bank just as Razoni and Jackson are leaving Bufford’s diner; Murphy by the way pulls a few Elmore Leonard-type tricks with time, showing events happening concurently. The bank hit is pretty bloody, Flasher in his mask and “fright wig” showing no mercy to the old bank guard and the president – even though he’s friends with them, given that he works there! He’s chased down the street by cops and carjacks the first vehicle he comes to, which of course happens to be Razoni and Jackson’s Chevy. And Jackson happens to be behind the wheel at the time.

Razoni isn’t worried about Jackson – he’s worried about the car. In fact Jackson is guilt-tripped that he even let the armed punk carjack him! Jackson immediately knows that this is a white man in a rubber mask. He also notices the penny loafers Flasher is wearing; as ever, it’s deductive logic which cracks the cases in this series, not gun-blazing action. And for that matter, both Razoni and Jackson have locked their guns in the trunk of the Chevy and never even get their hands on them in the course of the novel. Flasher’s the only one who does any shooting; after Jackson crashes the car into a lake, the masked punk gets up on the sinking car and takes a few shots at Jackson as he swims away.

From there it’s more of a slow-burn “racist town” caper. Sheriff Potter (Bufford’s brother and Flasher’s uncle) rounds up a young black local with radical politics named George Washington Clinton and pins the bank heist on him. Jackson’s statements that the “black man” who carjacked him was really white of course fall on deaf ears…save for state cop Lt. McCabe, the only local policeman in the novel with any intelligence.

While Jackson meets with the Clinton family to confirm their son’s innocence, Razoni seeks out waitress Tulsa Cuff for more info on the Buffords. He ends up having some off-page lovin’ with her, even checking into a hotel with her, and while there’s zero sleazy detail Tulsa is well-handled and comes to life more than the average men’s adventure babe. There’s also a somewhat-touching backstory about her mother dying, hence her return to Pinkney from “the big city, and how she’s now abused by her alcoholic father. Tulsa also factors into the finale in pure pulp style: tied bare naked to a tree by a bunch the KKK, to be killed for having sex with Razoni!

This is what makes for the climax, but even here Murphy goes for more of a comedic vibe. The Potters whip their KKK brothers into a frenzy and they all don their white robes to go round up Razoni and Jackson. Jackson is still at the house party in the black area of town and the residents successfully fight off the KKK, though the action is bloodless – everyone’s a terrible shot and the KKK runs away. The other faction of KKK fares better, charging in on Razoni and Tulsa in their hotel room and pulling them away, Razoni punching and fighting all the way.

The finale is a retread of #3: One Night Stand, with an enraged Jackson coming to Razoni’s rescue. Leading the group of black locals, they tear into the woods behind the hotel and find Razoni and Tulsa tied to trees, Razoni in the process of being whipped by a cat o’ nine tales. Jackson goes ballistic, throwing KKK scumbags around and bashing them up. The heroic act is of course undercut by Jackson’s shout that only he can whip his partner. Razoni spends the entire action scene out cold.

It makes for a fitting conclusion to the series, even though the series ad at the back of the book promises “And more to come…”; that same hyperbolic line Pinnacle used for all its series advertisements. But Lynch Town was the last volume, ending with our heroes finally headed for New Orleans, bickering away. However Razoni and Jackson returned twelve years later, as supporting characters in the sixth volume of Murphy’s Trace series, Too Old A Cat. I’ll be checking that one out next.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Assassin

The Assassin, by Paul Ross
No month stated, 1974  Manor Books

I was under the impression this was another of those BCI Crime Paperbacks produced by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, given that “Paul Ross” was the same house name used for Engel’s Chopper Cop series. Also, I knew from Hawk’s Authors’s Pseudonyms that this particular “Paul Ross” was really William Crawford, who wrote many of those BCI Crime Paperbacks under various pseudonyms. But Engel’s name doesn’t appear in the copyright of The Assassin, so this was a solo Crawford affair.

However there are enough similarities to the Engel-produced Mafia: Operation Hitman, also published in 1974, that I began to wonder if The Assassin was actually a rejected manuscript that Crawford sold to Manor. In other words, perhaps The Assassin started life as Mafia: Operation Hitman but Engel didn’t feel it was up to snuff…perhaps because the Mafia’s not in it, and also because there’s more about flying than there is about assassinating. Honestly, a more accurate title for this novel would be “The Pilot.”

Otherwise, this is certainly the most streamlined Crawford novel I’ve yet read. Whereas all the others have suffered from constant stalling, repetition, and arbitrary info-dumping, The Assassin moves at an assured pace and pretty much sticks to linear events, focused solely on our titular character, Lance Martin, with only occasional detours into the backgrounds of various one-off characters. The only thing that sinks the book is all the damn flying material. I’m not joking when I tell you that the second half of the novel is mostly concerned with Lance flying a new plane.

Egregious flying material is a Crawford hallmark, as is a bitter, mean-spirited “hero” who does his best to piss off everyone, including the reader. Another hallmark, again on display here, is the Hemingwayesque machismo of the protagonist, who does all those manly things of yore. And again we have the Mexican setting, right on the border of Mexico – and as ever we’re not told precisely which state the novel occurs in, though you can guess it’s New Mexico a la Stryker and some of Crawford’s other work. But one thing missing this time is a character shitting himself – typically that’s a William Crawford staple.

The cover photo of the faux-Oswald (or whoever really killed Kennedy) sighting down with his mail-order rifle is misleading; Lance (as Crawford refers to his anti-hero throughout), like the protagonist in Mafia: Operation Hitman, makes his jobs look like accidents. We see him in action in a suspenseful opening sequence; following a convoluted payment scheme, in which cases of money are dropped into the field of a farm house he owns near San Antonio, Lance leaves his main home in Mazatlan and heads for Los Angeles. Here he kills an advertising bigwig at a football game, making it look like a heart attack.

Lance has been a professional assassin for fifteen years, and next Crawford shows us his origin story. Born to a hardscrabble life in some unstated Southern city, Lance grew up tough and mean, then was shipped off to Korea. He came back on a football scholarship and ended up marrying the Homecoming Princess (referred to as “The Princess” throughout). A leg injury cost him his football career and scholarship, so eventually Lance got onto the police force in the fictional town of Frontera, confusingly enough right across the border from a town in Mexico of the same name.

But Frontera, Lance learned, was a “controlled town,” with vice and unchecked corruption to the highest levels. Lance, not long after joining the force, gave a ticket to the latest girlfriend of some Frontera VIP, and after this his life went to hell thanks to pressure from the corrupt town leaders. After various mishaps Lance started fighting back, which made things worse; an informant turned out to be the ringleader of a sting operation, and, just like Colin Stryker, Lance was set up on various charges and sent off to prison for three years. Also, like Stryker, Lance has a disabled daughter, but this one’s disabled from mental problems “caused by a father who is a dirty cop,” per the Princess in the divorce papers she files soon after Lance’s incarceration.

This entire sequence is well written, but comes off like a retread for anyone who read Stryker #1, as it’s basically the same story. Lance gets out of prison – where he learned such handy con skills as disguise and flying an airplane(!) – and goes about getting some old-fashioned revenge. He scores big when he takes out the informant who was really behind the sting, finding money stashed all over the guy’s house. This is used to get Lance’s daughter out of a state-run hellhole insane asylum and into a better private facility. Humorously, nothing more is said about the daughter, or what happened to her, even though all this is fifteen years ago, and thus the girl would be 20 or so during the time in which the main events of The Assassin take place. 

Crawford as ever makes strange writing decisions…we’ll get chapters and chapters of Lance executing various moves in one of his planes, but when Lance skins alive one of the men who set him up, Crawford leaves the act off-page. Anyway an old judge contacts Lance about a year after he begins his revenge mission; the same judge who sent Lance off to prison for three years. He claims to know Lance is the man who has killed the other plotters, and pleads that he himself was forced into the sting; the judge is gay, and compromising photos are being used to frame him. This is the man that brings Lance into the professional killing game, setting him up with jobs and arranging his payment methods. The first kill, naturally, is of the guy who is blackmailing the judge.

Lance Martin is definitely an asshole, as is mandatory for any Crawford hero, but he lacks even any basic compassion. Crawford only slightly studies the mentality that could make a person a professional killer; we’re told that Lance just feels nothing at all for the people he kills, which is something he himself doesn’t try to understand. We do learn that he no longer takes jobs in which the target is a woman. He’s killed two of them, and apparently this is what’s caused him to suffer a strange sort of impotence.

In a subplot so arbitrary it was clearly shoehorned into the narrative to meet an editorial request, Lance we learn can’t climax when he has sex. In Mazatlan he’s known as a high roller, and a guy at the nearest posh restaurant often fixes Lance up with busty babes who are vacationing in town. We get a lot of “big tits” exploitation as Lance checks out the latest babe’s impressive equipment, but as ever Crawford leaves the sex off-page. But Lance still can’t orgasm, much to the woman’s dismay (in a nice bit Lance muses that he’s the “compleat assassin,” in that he “kills” something in these women, taking away from them the one thing they thought they could make any man do).

Nothing else is said about this condition for the rest of the novel. As we’ll recall, the protagonist of Mafia: Operation Hitman suffered from a similar sexual condition, also due to his killing of female targets, and eventually had to resort to sadomasochism to get off. This bit was what made me suspect that The Assassin was Crawford’s attempt at writing that Mafia: Operation installment. I know that in most cases Engel gave his ghostwriters a treatment or outline to follow, so Mafia: Operation Hitman certainly had a requirement that the protagonist not be able to get his rocks off due to subconscious guilt over murdering women – this would explain why Lance’s condition suddenly comes up (so to speak), is made into a big deal for a few pages, and then abruptly dropped.

Anyway “the old fruit judge” died years ago, and now Lance handles his own jobs, ensuring that his identity is never uncovered by prospective clients. We’re often reminded how two former clients tried to rip him off, and suffered fatally for it. But sadly these flashback kills are all the “assassin” stuff we get in the novel. For midway through Lance is offered a contract to kill a populist politician named Elmore “Josey” Josephsen who threatens to change the course of American politics with his massive public support. This becomes the main and only assassination job Crawford focuses on for the rest of the novel.

That and a whole helluva lot of flying. Crawford was buds with fellow Pinnacle author Mark Roberts, himself a pilot (or at least an armchair pilot), and these two writers are similar in how they shoehorn interminable flying sequences into their novels in a gambit to fill pages. It’s almost like showing off, really. “You wanna read about a professional assassin or a lone wolf mob-buster? Sorry, pal – I’m a pilot, so you’re gonna read about airplanes!”

So we have this overlong heist of a twin-engine aircraft Lance wants, followed by a lot of flying maneuvers. However the plane does at least factor into his assassination plan – at length Lance decides to take the Josephen job, mostly because the political figure is going to appear at a rally in Frontera, and standing beside him at the speech will be the town Mayor: Jeffrey Woodhull, one of the men who framed Lance all those years ago. And the only one of them Lance never got to kill. A former bigwig cop, Woodhull lives under such security that Lance gave up all hope of killing him. But now he’ll be out in the open with Josephsen, so it would be the veritable two birds.

There’s almost as much haggling as there is flying; Lance keeps calling the mysterious group that offered the Josephsen contract, demanding a million from them. This takes a few calls and Lance is pretty persuasive, but I personally wouldn’t recommend calling potential clients things like “butt-mouth.” Our hero is in total asshole mode during these phone calls, lending the sequences a darkly humorous touch. He also goes on wild rants about how these men claim they want to kill Josephsen in order to “save the country,” but in reality they don’t give a good damn about the country or its people; they just want to protect their own interests. Josephsen is not aligned with either political party, nor the corrupt “uniparty” which controls both parties behind the scenes, thus he has become enemy number one to the media, even though he was beloved by the media just a few years before. I experienced severe déjà vu as I read this part.

Lance gets the agreement for a million payoff and goes about planning the hit. At least his plane factors into it; he’s gonna take Josephsen and Woodhall out with a minigun! Yes, Lance just happened to buy a minigun years ago and has it lying around in his home in Mexico. He’s got all kinds of weapons, but sadly he doesn’t use any of them in the course of the book. And also the Josephsen stuff, while built up and seemingly promising more development, is pretty much dropped at this point; the book’s more about Lance stealing that damn plane, prepping himself for the job, and handling the hit in the final pages – no personal confrontation with either Josephsen or Woodhull. 

Crawford drops enough foreshadowing throughout the book that the reader can suspect where it’s all headed. I did like the subtle way Lance’s hardcore drinking factored into the climax. We’re often told Lance learned from professional athletes to get super drunk two nights before a hit, leaving him edgy and angry. We’re also told that Lance’s doctor has told him the drinking is getting too heavy and will have repercussions on Lance’s mind and health. We see this proven in the finale, though Crawford doesn’t beat us over the head with it. Basically, Lance has overlooked several things due to his drinking, not realizing he’s goofed until it’s too late.

 Also Lance’s thorough attention to detail, upon which he prides himself, causes him much misfortune. Not that the reader feels too bad for him, as Lance actually takes out a ton of innocents in his hit – he’s got tracers interspersed with the minigun ammo, and uses them to lock in on Josephsen and Woodhull on the review stand. Too bad for the crowd standing in front of the stand as Lance lines up the hammering spray of bullets – 300 rounds a second, we’re told. He leaves utter devastation in his wake, but this is only relayed via a radio report he listens to in the cockpit. The climax plays out on a tense, gripping sequence as Lance tries to escape from his sinking plane. I mean even in the friggin’ climax the plane is more important to the story than the assassination, but at least it’s very suspenseful.

I think this was my favorite Crawford novel yet, though it lacked the casual brutality of his other novels, such as The Chinese Connection or The Cop-Killers. I think I liked this one mostly because Crawford stuck to a single storyline and for the most part followed a beginning, middle, and end structure, without all the random stalling of his other books. But the egregious flying stuff was annoying. The book did inspire me to start calling people “butt-mouth” more often, though.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Nazi Hunter #1

Nazi Hunter #1, by Mark Mandell
November, 1981  Pinnacle Books

Nazi Hunter was an obscure series from latter-day Pinnacle that amounted to five volumes. Currently you can only find a review of the second volume by Zwolf and another review of the second volume at the Point Blank blog. I suspect the series was not a big seller, and the lame cover art which seems to depict a business executive on his way to the office certainly didn’t help matters.

Mark Mandell is the real name of a veteran men’s adventure author who is better known by his pseudonym: Alan Philipson. Under this name he wrote many of the SOBs novels for Gold Eagle in the ‘80s. I was told that Philipson was really Mandell a few years ago by someone who knew him, but since my informant wasn’t sure if this was public knowledge I kept the information to myself. However I see now that Allen Hubin states that Mandell and Philipson are one and the same, so there you go.

Both Zwolf and Point Blank state that Mandell’s writing is pretty good for the genre, and that’s definitely the case in this first installment, which has almost literary aspirations in the scenery and character description. I don’t recall Mandell’s Gold Eagle books being like this, so perhaps he just reined it in once he better understood the market. Nazi Hunter #1 reads like another of those novels that was written as a standalone, as if shooting for the mainstream market, before it was refashioned into the first installment of a series. Thus, there’s a lot more scene setting and character developing than you’ll encounter in the genre average.

Series protagonist Curt Jaeger is a Captain in the US Special Forces, somewhere in his late thirties, passed over for various promotions due to not following orders and always risking his neck in the line of fire. My only problem with him is that he’s fairly generic, at least in this volume, in which he spends more time standing around. But then this first installment serves as his origin story. We learn that he was born in Germany, his parents killed during the war, and he was raised from a very young age in California by a German immigrant couple who did their best to make young Curt seem like all the other American boys. He never learned to speak German, or was told anything about his parents, etc. But Curt’s foster parents just died, and in their estate he found documents which informed him that his father was actually an infamous Nazi, in fact one who ran a concentration camp, and killed thousands of Jews and Gypsys.

Now an enraged Curt has come to Germany for a reckoning with his dad, who was brought to trial in the ‘50s and has been in a US military prison facility ever since. Mandell opens up the story with a group of Nazi hunters from Israel who are shadowing Curt, unsure what side he’s on. They are unaware that he was raised as an American and fear he might be looking to continue in his dad’s footsteps. Leading the group is a bearish sadist named Wolf Geller who quickly grates on the reader’s nerves. There’s also an older man named Jonas who bears the forearm tattoo of the camps; he is internationally famous as a Nazi hunter, bringing various Nazis to trial. Geller on the other hand just wants to blow them away. Finally there’s hotstuff Tyshana, a Gypsy babe Geller wants to score with but she gives him a consistent cold shoulder.

Curt is granted an audience with his father, only to learn the man who has been in this cell for the past few decades is an unwitting dupe, conned by Curt’s father into doing prison time in his name. He pleads with Curt to get him out so that he can show him where his father really is. Curt comes up with one of the goofier breakout schemes in printed history. And the cover painting illustrates it! Curt lugs an attache case of clothes and books into the prison for his “dad,” then has the guy climb into the case. He’s all frail and small, but still over a hundred pounds, and Curt has to pretend he’s carrying an empty case as he walks out of the prison. So for some reason Pinnacle chose this as the scene to capture for the cover.

There isn’t very much action, anyway. An okay sequence occurs here, with neo-Nazis battling it out with Geller’s Nazi hunters, and Curt is captured by the former. Here we get a lot of torture porn as Curt and a captured neo-Nazi are nearly suffocated by a plastic bag, courtesy Geller, who gets off on it. I forgot to mention, but the Nazis live on, operating under various names, and it’s implied that Curt’s dad (who remains unseen this volume) is one of the leaders of the mysterious group. Their goal of course is to take over the world. The problem with these sorts of stories, to me at least, is that they want to develop pulp action off of the monumental horrors of the Holocaust.

Curt at length ends up in a castle near Linz, having escaped Geller and the others with the neo-Nazi. Here he meets the villain of the tale, Adolf Tropp, a superior officer of Curt’s dad back in the war, but now one of his underlings in the so-called “Brotherhood.” Tropp retains a castle full of neo-Nazis who wear black SS-type uniforms and tote submachine guns, plus there’s a gas chamber in the cellar. This Curt learns is where his mother was murdered, along with untold others, during the war. And Tropp has folders filled with before, during, and after photos of innocent men, women, and children being gassed. Ultimately Curt will decide to follow Jonas’s Nazi-hunting methods and steal this incriminating evidence so that Tropp can go to prison.

But even here it’s sort of goofy…Tropp and the others welcome the big blond American as a fellow Nazi, sort of; first Tropp shows off his gas chamber, insists Curt step inside, and then locks him in there. Curt’s sure he’s dead meat when vapors begin to come out of the vents. But it’s just a “joke,” insists Tropp, and thus begins a goofy and unbelievable sequence where Tropp makes pseudo-threats upon Curt, laughing them off as jokes, and Curt makes pseudo-threats in return. It’s all sort of dumb…like after the gas chamber incident Curt “almost” punches one of Tropp’s stooges in the chest, faking out a “heart punch” that would’ve killed the guy. But as I say, Curt Jaeger spends much of this first novel sort of figuring out the type of action hero he wants to be.

Curt bides his time here for a few days, initially plotting to kill everyone but later planning to steal those documents. Tropp meanwhile wants to send Curt off to the Middle East to assassinate a couple people as his first test for Brotherhood membership. So Curt has Willy, the resident gunsmith, devise a custom weapon for him, with the stated intention of using it on this Middle East job but really so Curt can have a trademark weapon. He’s decided to become a hunter of Nazi scum, and he wants a gun that will serve as his bloody calling card. Here Mandell indulges in the firearms detail that would be mandatory in the Gold Eagle books he’d soon be writing:

The gun was based on the XP-100 design of Remington Arms; a single-shot, bolt-action pistol chambered for super high-velocity rifle ammunition. The Remington pistol was created around the .221 Fireball cartridge. Curt’s modification used the full-length .308 Winchester or 7.62 x 51 mm NATO military round, which gave the Fireball’s screaming muzzle velocity to a bullet three times as heavy. 

The unusual, T-shaped stock of the weapon was resting on Willy’s workbench. Beside it was the standard Remington .308-caliber bolt action that the gunsmith had adapted for single-shot capability. What made the gun look so weird was the overhang of the bolt action behind the pistol grip. It ended a good five inches back from the butt of the barrel, which was in line with the trigger. 

It was an extremely specialized weapon, as illegal in the United States as a fully automatic machine gun. Essentially, it was a cut-down deer rifle. When equipped with a telescopic sight, it was capable of pinpoint accuracy at distances well beyond three hundred yards. It could also be concealed very easily, as the overall length was only about fifteen inches. It was a gun designed with man-killing in mind, an assassin’s weapon. 

This is the sort of thing that should’ve been depicted on the cover. Anyway, Curt enjoys the irony that the Nazis will be creating for him the weapon he will use to destroy them, one by one. And as stated the gun’s single-shot; Curt sees this as another way to create an image for himself – a guy so badass he only needs one shot to take out Nazi bastards. To me it sounds more like a headache waiting to happen. As it is, Curt only uses the gun twice in the book, the first in another goofy bit where he acts out an execution with Willy. That’s right…Willy enjoys pretending to be the people he executed with a Mauser, in the war years, groveling on his knees and wringing his hands, all in good fun. The novel trades, somewhat clumsily, between serious material and comedic material like this.

Geller and his Nazi hunters do all the heavy lifting when it comes to the action, like an overlong and arbitrary part where they hit Tropp’s forces and Geller learns he has a traitor in his midst. He’s sure it’s Curt, and I wonder if Wolf Geller turns out to be a recurring character in the series, because this novel ends with he and Curt realizing they are on the same side. As for Curt, he doesn’t go into “Nazi Hunter” mode until the very end. First he wires Tropp’s castle to blow and then he makes off with the old Nazi as his hostage. He blasts away a bunch of goons with a submachine gun, but it’s mostly a one-sided fight because he hids behind a whimpering Tropp the whole time.

The finale sees Curt employing that “cut-down deer rifle” which will be his trademark weapon, assassinating someone from afar outside of a court building. It makes for a nice ending, but Mandell seems to have run out of pages, as the reveal of who betrayed Geller comes off pretty hastily. The novel sees Curt Jaeger prepared to take the war to the Brotherhood, having quit the army to become a fulltime Nazi Hunter. Overall Nazi Hunter #1 was okay, but I don’t have any of the other volumes and I wasn’t sufficiently blown away by this one to track down any more.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Piece Of Something Big

A Piece Of Something Big, by Harry Reed
No month stated, 1972  Lancer Books

I was very happy to discover this obscure Lancer paperback original. It’s one of the better crime novels I’ve read – a lean, well-written pulp yarn about a guy with a “Karate Iron Hand” who becomes the victim of a syndicate triple cross. It’s a super cool story and certainly would’ve made for a good movie, but unfortunately the cover blurb is a lie – no movie was ever released.

I’d love to know the story behind A Piece Of Something Big, and not just what happened to the promised film version. Harry Reed is a gifted writer, doling out the assured, economical prose of a veteran pulp author…which makes it quite strange that there’s only one other novel published under his name: The Gringo Killer, from 1971, a Western also published as a Lancer paperback original.

Even more curious: A Piece Of Something Big is copyright Josephine Reed, which would imply that “Harry Reed” is the pseudonym of a female author. If this is true, then Josephine Reed is in the Leigh Brackett mold, one of the very few female authors who can write like a man – in other words, capable of very masculine fiction. However I think there’s more to it than that; The Gringo Killer is actually copyright Harry Reed, which would imply he was a real person and not a pseudonym. So what I think we have here is similar to the situation with Killinger, a novel that was published after the author’s death. This would explain why A Piece Of Something Big, published a year after The Gringo Killer, is copyright Josephine Reed and not Harry Reed. It would also explain why there are no other Harry Reed novels.

Anyway I go into all this because I really, really enjoyed this novel. At 156 pages of smallish print it moves at a snappy clip and captures the exact vibe I love in my ‘70s pulp crime. It’s got smart-guy dialog, colorful characters, fairly exploitative sex scenes, and even a couple nicely-done action sequences. Hell, there’s even a “hippie lawyer” in it. It sort of falls apart in the last quarter, which I’ll get to anon, but even that wasn’t enough to dim my enjoyment of the book. It’s certainly the sort of thing that should be reprinted by Hard Case Crime or some other retro publisher of today, though they might be a little skittish about the occasional usage of the word “Negro.” However the black characters in the book come off very well.

The vibe is very much of a Fawcett Gold Medal hardboiled novel, only moved into the early ‘70s and featuring a hardbitten con with superhuman karate skills as the protagonist. Also, it’s written in a much preferable (to me at least) third person narrative, unlike most of those vintage Gold Medals which were in first person. And as mentioned the sex is more explicit (though nothing too outrageous), with frequent exploitation of the female characters’ ample charms. These are all of course good things.

Our hero is Kurt Kruger and he’s a short, thin guy with receding blond hair; just overall an unremarkable looking guy with a forgettable face. However his right hand is not forgettable: there’s a hard “lump” of calcified bone over his knuckles, courtesy that “Iron Hand.” This was considered a big thing with oldschool martial artists, and I wonder if Reed was inspired by Don Buck, a martial artist of the day who had a similar deformed hand due to his brutal karate training regimen. And Kruger’s hand really is deformed; even if he could hold a gun he wouldn’t be able to pull the trigger.

Kruger’s backstory gradually unfolds in the narrative, but basically he’s somewhere in his thirties and served in the navy, where he took up boxing. Once stationed in Japan he moved into karate and studied with the top instructor of the land, which is how he got that iron hand, and also how he ran afoul Yobiyashi, considered the most dangerous man alive. This backstory seems as if it’s going to be more important than it turns out to be, but basically Kruger was “running around” with Yobiyashi’s sister and they got in a car wreck. The girl died, and now Yobiyashi has sworn to kill Kruger in revenge, not just for his sister’s death but because she died in “disgrace” by dating a white man.

From there Kruger’s had various issues with the law and employment, so that when we meet him he’s in a jail in a podunk desert town in Arizona, arrested for a heist gone wrong. The opening of the novel is already memorable enough: a “drunk Indian” puking, much to the dismay of his cellmates. Kruger’s sprung by some strangers who show up in a limo. Leading them is a “prosperous hippie” type with long beard and highfalutin mod clothing. This is Sylvester Doblin, the aforementioned “hippie lawyer.” He and some thugs drive Kruger to San Francisco, where a mysterious individual wants to offer Kruger a job.

Their destination is a “fortress mansion” where Kruger’s put up in an opulent room that’s basically a gilded cage. But they at least send him a woman – a built blonde hooker named Zelda, who engages Kruger in some off-page lovin’ that’s apparently so incredible they fall in love! Reed does a very good job bringing Zelda to life; the mysterious guy who owns this mansion retains a group of women who are used exclusively for the services of his guests and the thugs on his payroll, and Zelda is very matter-of-fact about the setup. She ends up getting raped by these thugs more than once in the course of the novel, but each time treats it as “just another john.” Yet the developing bond between her and Kruger comes off as genuine and believable.

This is because Reed has a definite gift for characterization and humorous dialog. Kruger has a very quick wit, and this pairs well with Zelda’s plucky attitude. Meanwhile Kruger meets the man who summoned him here: BJ Baldoni, an infamous syndicate man. Baldoni relates that his daughter Lucia is going around with a black boxer (not the phrase Baldoni uses – and there’s a lot of N-word stuff here that would also make a modern publisher skittish) and Baldoni wants Kruger to beat the shit out of the guy…to the extent that he’ll avert his eyes when he bumps into white people on the street (again, not the exact phrase Baldoni uses – it’s much more over the top).

The novel’s a bit modern in Kruger’s attitude on this: “I’m twenty kinds of bastard but race is not one of my hangups.” At any rate he agrees to the job when he’s informed the boxer, Brad Killens, is just a plain asshole, let alone any racial stuff – he’s got a wife he beats on, kids he neglects, and his boxing triumps are courtesy smaller individuals he taunts and then creams in the ring. Kruger’s job is to knock Killens down to size, in front of Lucia, and first Baldoni has Kruger show off his skills against one of Baldoni’s thugs, a hulking goon named Tiny.

Sadly this will prove to be one of Kruger’s few action scenes in the novel – and he doesn’t even use the Iron Hand, much to Baldoni’s (and the reader’s) dismay. He does though stomp Tiny in the balls so savagely that the bastard ends up losing one of them – and this merciless act is payoff for Tiny insisting, earlier that morning, to have sex with Zelda after Kruger was done with her. This though being the first of many such “who cares?” moments for Zelda, who takes Tiny to bed moments after leaving Kruger’s. This is the only time I’ve ever encountered such a scene in a novel – usually the hero fights for his woman – but as I say it comes off well, probably because it’s so unexpected.

Killens is in San Diego and here most of the novel plays out, but Reed doesn’t much bring the locale to life. But again, you don’t look to pulp crime novels for travelogue material, so that’s okay. Kruger’s put up in a plush apartment with Sylvester, the hippie lawyer, and made to pose as a famous painter who likes to surf. Reed doesn’t do much to exploit either of these angles, though Kruger meets Lucia Baldoni while “painting” on the roof of the apartment building (while Lucia is sunbathing in the nude). The goal is for Lucia to spot Kruger and fall for him…she goes for fighting men, which is why she apparently likes Killens so much, and Baldoni wants Kruger to challenge Killens over the girl and beat him to pulp. This could be “a piece of something big” for Kruger, Baldoni promises – he’ll get those charges from the heist in Arizona dropped, and he’ll fund a new karate school for Kruger.

Lucia is a beautiful and built brunette, and Reed, as with Zelda, exploits her ample charms – more indication to me that this novel was the product of a fevered male imagination. Baldoni’s such a thoughtful boss that he even presents Kruger, through Sylvester, with the “gift” of a key – which opens an apartment across town, an apartment in which Zelda is staying, put there expressly for Kruger’s use. But Baldoni also sends periodic tests Kruger’s way, like a deranged speedfreak hippie who tries to carjack Kruger’s Jaguar XKE. This time we get to see the Iron Hand in action.

Reed does a great job of capturing that swinging early ‘70s vibe I love so much. Kruger and Lucia go to a posh party where you can buy “marijuana joints” upstairs – Kruger’s not into it – and there’s also an orgy room in back, and Lucia teases Kruger about taking her back there. But Kruger’s an “old-fashioned motel man,” and when he takes down three more would-be attackers on the way outside to the Jaguar, Lucia becomes incredibly turned on by the violence: “Take me like the bitch whore I am! Quick! Put it in me before I die!” You’ve gotta wonder if this particular dialog would’ve made it into the promised film version…

The confrontation between Kruger and Killens in a restaurant is very well done, mostly because here again we get to see Kruger’s karate moves in action. But when he reads in the late edition of that day’s newspaper that Killens is dead, murdered in a fight, Kruger knows he’s been framed. He beat the boxer badly, but he didn’t kill him. This takes us into the second half of the novel, with Kruger on the run, unsure who to trust. Here Zelda’s character is further expanded, and her love for Kruger is constantly put to the test – there is a wonderfully-executed sequence where she’s taken advantage of by various Baldoni thugs, who insist she get on a plane back to San Francisco and forget about Kruger…but each time Zelda gets to the airport she just turns around and goes back to look for her man.

Reed also expands the story with the introduction of a black police lieutenant in San Diego who is old friends with Kruger from the navy; this character, Nat, has his own subplot in which he tries to help clear Kruger from the frame, and also helps out Zelda. This relationship is also well developed and comes off as genuine. Nat factors into the finale and how it plays out, and only here do I get into any criticisms, because sadly, things sort of fall apart in the final quarter of A Piece Of Something Big

I’ll refrain from complete spoilers. Basically we want to see Kruger get some revenge, but Reed keeps denying him it: first Kruger goes after one bastard who framed him, only to find the guy already dead, his head caved in, clearly from an Iron Hand blow. It’s yet another attempt at framing Kruger for murder. Then a few thugs get the drop on Kruger and he’s taken back to Baldoni’s fortress in San Francisco…and sits around in that same locked room. For weeks! And the simple vengeance plot is gussied up with various turnarounds and reveals, with Baldoni trying to further frame Kruger, making him look like one of the men who planned the entire Killens kill.

While Kruger is robbed of a good finale, Zelda fares much better. She’s taken off by two more goons, and when it’s clear they plan to drive her into the desert and kill her, she takes them out in one of the more memorable sendoffs I’ve ever encountered – she goes down on the driver while riding the thug in the passenger seat, then manages to crash the car as it’s on a curvy mountain road. She’s rescued and put in the hospital, but she’s gone into psychosis from the multiple rapes and beatings. Nat and his wife help bring her back to sanity, and the very end of the book features Zelda dishing out bloody payback with a submachine gun.

But Kruger…man, he gets a bum deal in the final pages. He still doesn’t get to dispense any Iron Hand vengeance! Instead Baldoni reveals that Yobiyashi, the Japanese killer who has vowed to murder Kruger, is the one who really took out Killens and the others, all so Baldoni could pay Yobiyashi back by delivering Kruger on a silver platter. So the two karate warriors begin to circle one another, prepared for the battle…and the helluva it is, Kruger’s no match for the guy. I thought for sure that we’d have this crazy, brutal fight, with Kruger pulling from inner resources, able somehow to defeat Yobiyashi, but it’s more like he’s plain outclassed…and the worst part is, Kruger is saved by another character. This to me is one of the biggest sins the action writer can commit: the hero having to be rescued by another character in the climax.

But don’t let this little detail dissuade you from seeking out A Piece Of Something Big. Before I got to those final pages I was prepared to declare this novel one of the best I’ve ever reviewed on the blog; I was really taken away by it, couldn’t believe how great it was. I can’t let my dissatisfaction with the last bit color my total enjoyment of what came before it.

In fact I started to wonder if Harry Reed died before he could finish the manuscript, and either his first draft got published or some editor (or Josephine Reed, hence the copyright?) attempted to finish what Reed had started. Not that the characters seem suddenly different in the last quarter, or that the dialog falls flat; it’s just that the novel seems building up and up, and then suddenly deflates. But then, this wouldn’t be the first pulp novel I’ve read that suffers from this syndrome, so likely it’s just pointless theorizing on my part.

Anyway, long story short, I totally recommend A Piece Of Something Big, with only slight reservations. It’s a damn shame there were no more Harry Reed crime novels. If anyone knows anything else about the guy, I’d love to hear it.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Mark Of Cosa Nostra (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #64)

The Mark Of Cosa Nostra, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1971  Award Books

The last Nick Carter: Killmaster courtesy George Snyder,* The Mark Of Cosa Nostra mines the same territory as later installment Beirut Incident: Nick “Killmaster” Carter, who narrates the novel, takes a break from tangling with the usual foreign agents to take on the American Mafia. However this time he does it mostly in Sicily.

Nick when we meet him is already getting in character in a remote AXE training facility in the Arizona desert. This volume’s unusual in that Nick spends the entirety in his disguise, which has him sporting a thick moustache. He’s posing as a high-level Mafioso named Tommy Acasano but doesn’t know why, nor what the assignment will be. At novel’s opening Nick has been here for a week or so, and as he’s walking from his room one morning he’s approached by a sexy young blonde who appears to be very young. She is – we’ll learn she’s only 19, and she’s a junior AXE agent, here for training.

This girl, Tanya, comes on strong to Nick, and without much trouble talks him back into his room for some hot lovin’. As ever Snyder doesn’t much exploit his female characters, but it must be mentioned that Tanya comes off a lot better than his other female protagonists – and Nick himself doesn’t even show the macho misogyny of Snyder’s other lead protagonist Bill Cartwright, in Operation Hang Ten. But this scene proves to be the first in a series of pretty-funny jokes; Nick starts taking off Tanya’s clothes and sees something metal and cylindrical poking from beneath the waistband of her panties. This turns out to be a “panty gun” which Tanya is testing for AXE; when Nick pulls the panties off the gun barrel snaps forward, the barrel right in Nick’s face, and if it had been loaded he’d be dead.

After this the girl makes a nonchalant phone call to someone to say the test was successful, and that’s that! She has no true interest in sleeping with Nick. To his credit our hero doesn’t come off as brutish as one might expect. In fact he admits that this incredibly young junior agent did get the drop on him. The panty gun appears twice more in the text and in each instance it makes for a memorable moment. At this point Nick’s boss Hawk arrives and over breakfast explains to Nick what the mission is.

Like the later Beirut Incident this is one of the few Killmaster yarns where Nick takes on organized American crime: AXE wants to put to stop the potential Mafia takeover being orchestrated by Nicoli Rizano. Having left America a decade ago, Rizano now rules a fiefdom from Sicily and has made a score selling heroin at dirt-cheap prices to US soldiers in Vietnam. He’s recently had a rival godfather killed off in America and is plotting to return to his homeland as the new main godfather of the United States mafia.

Nick is to pose as Acasano, Rizano’s only friend, who was ordered to compile a list of Mafioso who would support Rizano upon his return to America as the reigning capo. However Hawk relates that Acasano is really dead, killed by an AXE agent. Cagey Snyder figures out a way to slip in a few pages of third-person narration as we read of this undercover agent being outed by Acasano and the two killing each other in New York. Hawk is certain Rizano is unaware his friend is dead, so Nick is to go in disguise to Sicily and turn over a fake list of names to gain Rizano’s confidence and bust up the heroin operation.

This bound-for-failure plan is explained away with the goofy note that the two friends haven’t seen each other in ten years, so it’s hoped that Nick’s disguise will be good enough that Rizano will just think it’s the passing of a decade that’s made his old friend look a little different. No explanation is given on how Nick’s voice would doubtlessly sound different. This is why Tanya is here at the training base; Acasano had just acquired a new woman, a 19 year-old beauty Acasano took everywhere with him.

Tanya is a dead ringer for her (the real girlfriend is being kept in a resort by AXE agents), so she’s to go with Nick to Palermo and help him out. Off they go to Manhattan to wait in Acasano’s apartment for a coded message that should be arriving from Sicily. Snyder finally works in an action scene with the two ambushed by a pair of “Orientals” who lurk in the darkened apartment. Since they have heard Tanya call our hero “Nick” they know it’s not really Acasano, and so must die. Here Tanya proves her skills aren’t just in getting guys into the sack; she actually comes to Nick’s rescue a few times.

More importantly, Nick and Tanya finally get down to the dirty business of screwing. Tanya will prove to be Nick’s only conquest in the novel, a total breach of the series template where “Killmaster” scores with at least three babes per book. However this part does contain the most surreal description of an orgasm I’ve ever read:

There was no way I could hold back. I was a balloon filled with water and rolling across a long flat desert. A large spike was ahead sticking out of a weatherbeaten board. I felt myself pulling and clutching and bouncing until at last I struck the spike, and all the liquid water rushed out of me.

Snyder doesn’t much bring Palermo to life, but then this isn’t really the genre for such things. Instead he has Nick and Tanya locked up in Rizano’s fortress in the countryside, where he’s lived like a mafioso Howard Hughes for the past ten years. Rizano’s in deep with the Chinese Reds, in particular a crafty one named Tai Sheng. Nick as Acasano butts heads with Tai Sheng immediately upon meeting him at the airport. It’s clear Tai Sheng is using Rizano, with the ultimate goal of the Reds taking over the American Mafia. Snyder tries to convey more import to the tale – and also explain why Nick doesn’t just kill everyone – with the idea that Nick plans to steal a list of undercover Red agents from Tai Sheng.

It’s more on a suspense tip as Nick sits around in an opulent room, the “guest” of still-unseen Rizano. Tanya was taken away from him as soon as they entered the fortress. Later Rizano, who turns out to be going to seed and completely controlled by Tai Sheng, happily relates that “Tommy’s girl” was really a duplicate…the belabored story has it that the real girlfriend was spotted by Oriental waiters at a resort(!), and it was instantly surmised that this girl who has been going around with “Tommy” is a secret agent…indeed, an AXE agent! How they even know about top-secret AXE isn’t really explained.

Thus Nick watches on a monitor as Tanya is tied to a chair and beaten around by Tai Sheng – who by the way is also trying to convince Rizano that Nick himself is an imposter. The reader wants “Killmaster” to spring to action, but instead Nick bides his time, hoping for the chance to get that list of agents from Tai Sheng. Snyder wrote this thing in such a hurry that at one point he even has Nick trying to protect his list from Tai Sheng – before Nick “remembers” that it’s a fake list he brought here just to get in the graces of Rizano.

Tai Sheng claims to know someone in Turkey who can attest that Nick is an imposter, and further they’re headed over there for a heroin run, so why not bring along the bound and beaten Tanya as well? What the hell. Snyder all along is building a suspense story, as usual for him something more along the lines of a vintage Gold Medal yarn. The only problem is, he’s up against his word count. So, as hard as it is to believe, the climax of The Mark Of Cosa Nostra plays out on an airport landing strip in Turkey…and features one of the most lame copout finales of any book I’ve ever read.

Here be spoilers so be warned. Okay, Tanya’s already been outed as AXE, and is taken away by a flunky to be raped and killed on one of Rizano’s yachts on the bay near the airport. Soon thereafter, Nick’s cover is blown as well – and he’s blown it himself, slipping up when Rizano asks him a sneaky question, something the real Acasano should know. Okay, so here’s the dumb stuff. Rizano takes out a revolver and shoots Nick, point friggin’ blank. He just shoots him! And Nick falls down behind a car…and doesn’t die!! I mean, I can’t understand any writer who would come up with this sort of a lame bullshit copout finale… “I’ll have my hero get shot, but it’ll just be in the side, and he’ll walk it off…!”

I mean there’s no hidden bulletproof vest, no last-second plan to protect Nick’s cover identity. Nothing! Nick just gets shot! Basically point blank by a guy standing a few feet away! No last second dodging behind a car, or kicking at the gun! Nothing! Hell, even getting shot isn’t part of a plan – Nick’s completely caught unawares by the bullet! Him not getting killed is just a total fluke. I mean it’s just some of the laziest writing I’ve ever encountered…folks, you don’t have your protagonist get shot point blank and just happen to live through the good grace of god or poor villain marksmanship. 

But Nick lays there in a growing pool of blood as Acasano and Tai Sheng have their own final moments together. Then Nick, in a stupor, manages to drive a stolen bus down to the harbor, coming to Tanya’s defense. However the girl, we’ll recall, isn’t the typical defenseless maiden of Snyder’s other books, and has things well in hand. Instead it’s she who comes to Nick’s aid, bandaging him up, and later literally jumps to his rescue when Tai Sheng shows up toting a pistol. This leads to a practically endless fistfight between Nick and Tai Sheng, with Nick’s stiletto also employed, and man it just seems to go on forever.

I’d say the copout stuff is indication Snyder was fatigued on this series, not to mention his contempraneous work on Operation Hang Ten. I see now from a post by Paul Bishop that Snyder died last year, which is unfortunate. I also came across this nice interview with him, from I guess a few years ago. It features such memorable lines as, “I’m a junkyard writer who writes junkyard books,” but also some depressing lines like, “My kids had a new dad they liked better than me.” Judging from the interview Snyder became very prolific in the early 2000s, self-publishing a string of series books. Many of them seem right in-line with Hard Case Crime’s output, so it’s hard to understand why he couldn’t find a publisher, as he admits in the interview.

In fact the entire interview depressed the hell out of me…I mean the guy was a gifted writer, particularly in the hardboiled pulp manner, and sure he hit the occasional wrong note like the above Nick shooting, but let’s keep in mind he was likely overworked and hitting a deadline. But still, to write so long and remain unrecognized is just depressing as hell, and makes one wonder if getting into the writing game is even worth it. But as Snyder also states in the interview, the writing itself was enjoyable, so there’s that.

*Snyder’s name is also attached to the 1974 entry Vatican Vendetta, but as noted in my review that volume was a Ralph Hayes revision of a Snyder manuscript. My assumption is Snyder wrote his manuscript sometime in the late ‘60s and it sat around for a few years until Hayes did some work on it for “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel.