Monday, March 2, 2015

The Spider #3: Wings Of The Black Death

The Spider #3: Wings Of The Black Death, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1933  Popular Publications

The third volume of The Spider is notable because it was the first to be written by Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page, who would go on to write the majority of the ensuing 115 volumes. Having read some of Page’s later volumes, I was curious how different this first one would be. Surprisingly, it’s almost identical to what came later: a breathless excursion into bloody action and chaos.

One thing that does separate Wings Of The Black Death from the others I’ve read is that it seems Page put a little more care into this storyline, at least insofar as how the villain of the piece is outed. Whereas other volumes throw a lame “reveal” on the reader in the final pages, some barely-mentioned character unveiled as the main villain, this time Page appears to put more thought into the mystery. But we aren’t talking Arthur Conan Doyle here – this is still first and foremost an action pulp, designed to be speedily read and quickly forgotten.

But anyway, in his first Spider novel Norvell Page hits the ground running; within the first few pages Richard “The Spider” Wentworth is already shooting someone point-blank in the forehead, then a few pages later he’s shooting down a dog, and then a few pages after that some little kid is dying horrifically (and graphically) of Bubonic Plague. There are no tentative steps as the author attempts to familiarize himself with the characters, the audience, or the genre; from first page to last Wings of the Black Death delivers the same blunt impact as the rest of Page’s Spider oeuvre.

It’s interesting to note that Page uses characters and situations that had been created by original writer RTM Scott, without attempting to change the scenarios Scott had laid out. What I’m trying to say is that Page never changed the setup very much; I mean, Nita van Sloan started out as Richard Wentworth’s fiance, and she stayed that way for the next ten years. Similarly, Scott had Commisioner Stanley Kirkpatrick and Wentworth be friends, even though the commissioner suspected Wentworth of being the Spider – in fact Kirkpatrick apparently knew he was – yet he was duty-bound not to act on it until he had verifiable evidence. Page never changed this, either.

Scott only wrote the first two volumes of the series, and there’s apparently even debate if it was the same RTM Scott who wrote the second volume as the one who wrote the first; Scott had a son of the same name, who was also a pulp writer. So to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “RTM Scott, or another hack of the same name” wrote the first two volumes of the Spider, and by all accounts they were more tepid, mystery-focused yarns, lacking the psychotic, violent spark of Norvell Page’s work.

But Scott(s) created the characters, situations, and setup, and Page ran with it; within the first few pages Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are bantering at a social event, the commissioner implying that, now that Wentworth has returned from a trip to Europe, so too might the Spider be returning to the city. (Again, it’s bluntly obvious Kirkpatrick knows!) Meanwhile Wentworth has hurried here after taking care of business in that very personage, though this early in the saga the Spider dresses more like the Shadow; ie, none of the fangs and “fright wig” stuff. Instead he wears a mask over his eyes with a black veil covering the lower half of his face.

The plot is overly complex at the outset, but never fear as it soon straightens out into more of an action blitz. At any rate, Wentworth has decided to investigate a muddled plot about forged bonds that were unwittingly used by a girl named Virginia Doeg, whose dog soon thereafter died of Bubonic Plague, aka the Black Death. Somehow Wentworth knows there’s more to this story, and thus in the opening pages he’s already putting a hole in the head of some hapless, gun-wielding pawnbroker; thousands more would die at Wentworth’s hands in the coming decade.

Now begins a veritable war between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick, one because Wentworth is determined to visit Virginia Doeg, despite her being in police custody, and two because someone is killing New York cops…and putting the seal of the Spider on their foreheads. This leads to strange bits where Kirkpatrick will snarl at Wentworth, ready to kill him on sight…gullibly believing that the Spider, despite his “services for the city over the years,” has become a cop killer. Yet Wentworth has seen one of these seals, and knows them to be fakes – someone, as will become standard in Page’s work, is setting up the Spider. And now the whole world is against him.

From meager leads Wentworth eventually comes upon the whole Black Death scheme, which shows itself early with a horror-esque scene where a little boy and girl are dosed with an advanced strain of the disease…by a cute little puppy! A masked villain calling himself “The Black Death” is now extorting wealthy people; pay up, or you and your loved ones suffer from the Bubonic Plague. Wentworth is able to shoot the dog, but too late to save the kids, and Page delivers an unforgettable bit where we are informed of the grotesque deaths the children suffer.

Meanwhile, someone’s still killing cops and branding them with the fake Spider seal. There are several Wentworth/Kirkpatrick confrontations throughout Wings Of The Black Death, with the cops more focused on bringing down the Spider than saving citizens from the random outbreaks of Black Death which are now occurring throughout New York. These confrontations reach their climax with Kirkpatrick arresting Wentworth – a scene which has the commissioner finally discovering the hidden compartment of Wentworth’s lighter, which contains the Spider seal. However due to overly-described mumbo-jumbo, the seal disappears before Kirkpatrick can see it.

Wentworth then pulls the first of his escapes from the police; many more such incidents would follow in the coming years. This one’s pretty impressive, with Wentworth taking the wheel of the police car taking him to prison and wrenching it, sending the car off a bridge and into the Hudsdon. In the aftermath everyone thinks Wentworth – and thus the Spider – is dead. Even poor Nita thinks he’s dead, and for a stretch of the book she becomes the star of the show, with Wentworth well out of the picture.

Nita is just as resourceful as her fiance, using her wits to figure out what Wentworth already has – that someone is spreading the plague through pigeons. Out in Long Island Nita manages to get herself caught, by ruffians who work for the Black Death – who, per pulp standards, is a masked fiend, his face covered by a black veil. The thugs openly discuss raping Nita, though Page glosses over it a bit; one element missing from Wings Of The Black Death by the way is any sort of sexual element. Also missing is the hot evil woman who tempts Wentworth, another element which will be much used in later Page novels. Nita is the only female here, other than rarely-seen Virginia Doeg.

Anyway, Nita is tied up in a cave…only to be discovered by a still-alive Wentworth, who has been hiding throughout. This is all after a big fake blowout Wentworth and Nita had in a restaurant, to fool people into thinking Wentworth was leaving town; a ruse rendered moot by his later faked death. And also I’ve neglected to mention Wentworth’s random fights with various Black Death thugs, including a big firefight in a burning building. But the reader of The Spider already knows that he’s in for an action onslaught.

Wentworth is also captured a few times in this novel, including here in the end, where both he and Nita are tied up in the cave, with a convoluted death awaiting them. Nita has a loyal Great Dane, Apollo, given to her by Wentworth back in the first volume or something (the dog was fated to die in one of the later Page novels, only to be accidentally brought back by Emile Tepperman, one of the authors who occasionally filled in for Page); the Black Death has drugged the dog, and placed a water bowl filled with Bubonic Plague near him. The idea is that the dog will wake, drink the water, and then be called to his owners, lapping them with the plague.

Long story short, this is a stirring scene in which Nita again displays her bravery, calling for the dog despite Wentworth’s objections – and the guaranteed death which will follow. (It’s all rendered moot with the deus ex machina reveal that one of the Black Death’s goons accidentally spilled the water bowl!) The climax seens Wentworth and Nita in a biplane, Nita flying while Wentworth blasts at the Black Death with a machine gun. The final confrontation is even better, with Wentworth strangling the villain with his bare hands!

“Only” a thousand people die of the Bubonic Plague – a hefty number, but paltry given the widespread death of later volumes. However the Black Death incurs Wentworth’s wrath, and he’s more driven to kill this particular villain than in the other Spider novels I’ve yet read. But “driven” sums up Richard Wentworth, who blazes through this novel, killing thugs, escaping the cops, faking his death, and even finding the time to madly play his violin for a few hours.

Summing up, Wings Of The Black Death was another entertaining, bloody, action-filled entry in the Spider saga, and it was very interesting to see that Norvell Page already had command of his craft in his first contribution to the series.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Depth Force #4: Battle Stations

Depth Force #4: Battle Stations, by Irving A. Greenfield
July, 1985  Zebra Books

Once again coming off like the men’s adventure equivalent of a soap opera, the Depth Force series continues with this fourth novel that picks up immediately after the events of the previous volume, with not one word of helpful background material to catch up the reader.

Battle Stations follows the same template as that third volume; the first quarter wraps up events that began in the final quarter of the previous volume, and then the narrative moves on to documenting the harried, soap opera-like life of hero Jack Boxer, captain of the experimental nuclear sub The Shark. And like that previous installment, the “main plot” of Battle Stations doesn’t even get started until the final quarter of this volume, with events once again unresolved, so that the fifth volume will pick up the thread and continue the cycle…

As we’ll recall, Boxer was in Russian waters in the Arctic when last we met him, having exfiltrated a group of spies while at the same time kidnapping a bunch of KGB agents, including the head of that agency. When Battle Stations opens Boxer is still in the midst of this life-or-death battle. Only through the deus ex machina crash of a US plane in the ocean is the Shark able to evade the radar of the Sea Savage, the Russian equivalent of the Shark which is captained by Borodine, a noble sort of dude who harbors much respect for Boxer, and vice versa. However they both understand that they will kill one another in open combat if the opportunity arises.

Once the Sea Savage leaves the area, Borodine mistakenly believing he’s destroyed the Shark, Boxer must navigate his ship through the hostile ice-fields of the Arctic ocean. This sequence goes on forever. As with the previous volume, “action” is mostly relayed via dialog, and boring “naval” dialog at that, with Boxer shouting orders to his sailors. Meanwhile, back in the US, Admiral Stark (Boxer’s friend and mentor) bickers with Kinkade (wily CIA chief who hates Boxer). The latter is more so concerned about the KGB abductees, and rails on and on about how Boxer refuses orders (the Shark is owned by the CIA, by the way).

When the Shark finally gets back to friendly waters, Boxer returns to DC and is reuninted with Stark. Here the soap opera vibe resumes; last volume, Boxer hooked up with a pretty nurse named Louise Collins. Kinkade we learned didn’t like this relationship – because Louise was black, and a radical black, at that. So, behind the scenes, he’s paid her lots of money to leave Boxer a “dear John” letter and hit the road. She’s done just that, and now Boxer reels at his loss, not knowing that Kinkade was behind it all. He was “in love” with Louise and etc, blah blah blah…not that this matters, as once again Boxer scores with many women in explicit detail.

In the brief action denoument of Bloody Seas, a Shark sailor named Redfern was killed (Greenfield by the way is notorious for not reminding or even informing readers who the characters are, nor what they do on the ship). Apparently Boxer was close to this dude, and thus goes to a dinner party held in the home of his father-in-law, Senator Sam Ross; also there is Sue-Ann, Redfern’s attractive widow. After getting in a fight with a McCarthy-esque senator named McElroy, Boxer repairs to his guest room…and what reader will be surprised when Sue-Ann shows up by his bed that night?

“I want to be fucked,” announces the recently-widowed woman, and after like a second of deliberation Boxer grants her wish. One of Greenfield’s typically-graphic sex scenes ensues, complete with thorough description of oral venturings and deep plungings. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy for writing stuff like this – this genre should be filled with filth. But this is just a one-time fling, announces Sue-Ann, and besides she just wishes the Russians would give back Redfern’s body, as it’s still back there on Russian soil. Boxer determines to use his “friendship” with Borodine to get the body back.

There’s no action, no thrills -- Battle Stations is really more along the lines of the trashy novels Greenfield penned in the ‘70s, with a bit of a “political suspense” overlay. This is mostly through Kinkade, who schemes against Boxer throughout, as well as Senator McHugh, who makes it his career to “destroy” Boxer publically. In this McHugh and Kinkade become allies. But the novel is mostly relegated to scenes of Boxer driving around DC and talking to various people about thing he’s done and things he plans to do. Seriously, most of the dialog throughout the novel is of an incendental nature. (Ie, “Where would you like to go for dinner tonight?” and the like.)

Plot developments from the previous book are lost – for example, General Yeotev, the KGB leader who was shot in the knees before his capture, is only given passing mention. Instead we get bizarre, out-of-nowhere stuff like Boxer’s mother dying after her home’s broken into and she’s beaten by thugs(!?). As I said, it’s all very much like a soap opera, mostly because the series seems to be more about Captain Jack Boxer’s love life. This is evidenced with the appearance of Lt. Cynthia Lowe, Admiral Stark’s secretary, and apparently a character who either last appeared in volume 1 or 2; as usual, Greenfield does nothing to fill us in.

But at any rate Cynthia and Boxer were once an item, and somehow, prior to Bloody Seas, they broke off, and on bad circumstances at that. Boxer sees that she’s back on duty when he visits Stark (why exactly she was off duty is also unexplained), and after initial hostilities on Cynthia’s part Boxer is able to get her out on a date – and, of course, back in the sack. Cue more graphic sex as they exuberantly fuck, making up for lost time. But before that can happen, Boxer is cockblocked…shot by a cop!!

Bloody Seas featured a goofy bit where Boxer got in a bar fight with some thugs who were against the fact that his date for the evening, Louise Collins, was black. Battle Stations features an early moment where Boxer blithely tells the bartender at this same bar that he’d fight those assholes again. Well, it soon happens – but after Boxer’s beaten them, pulling a gun to defend himself, some cops come in and shoot him by accident. Or something like that. While Boxer recovers, Cynthia warms up to him.

More soap opera stuff – Boxer and Cynthia go on a yacht cruise, which Sue-Ann also attends. She gets drunk and starts screaming at Boxer in front of everyone about being a horrible leader, how he got her husband killed, and also how he was so quick to jump in the bed of his husband’s widow! Seriously it’s all like Days of Our Lives or something. Then Sue-Ann’s on her knees apologizing, and then Boxer and Cynthia are back in his stateroom, once again exuberantly fucking…

Now Boxer’s in Paris, where the Russians have said they’ll hand over Redfern’s body. Meanwhile Borodine has been cornered by the KGB to set up his “friend” Boxer for death. Boxer meets Borodine’s ex-wife, Maria Dodin (aka Glena) here, where she works for the US – a completely superfluous scene, though Greenfield fools us by describing how “impossibly beautiful” Maria is; normally this would be instant grounds for another sex scene. Instead Boxer gets his booty from the most unexpected source – Trish, the gorgeous young wife of Senator McHugh, aka the dude who is trying to destroy Boxer. Oh, and Trish also happens to be the granddaughter of Kinkade!

Any nitwit would suspect something, especially after the blowup Boxer had with the McHughs early in the novel, yet when Boxer receives an invite to dinner with the McHughs while in Paris, he ends up going – only to find a sexily-dressed Trish waiting there for him alone. When Greenfield mentioned her incredible cleavage, I immediately knew where it was going. One thing he did surprise me on was that Trish McHugh actually ends up falling in love with Boxer; in other words, the backstabbing playout I suspected doesn’t happen. She is here on her own free will, not sent here by McHugh to “distract” Boxer.

Trish ends up being the most frequent bedmate of Boxer this volume, and the one who receives the most explicit scenes; like the last book, Greenfield once again graces us with a sex scene that features the word “bung hole.” We also get Trish’s memorable declaration: “I’m going to come quickly.” But hey, remember how the KGB was going to kill Boxer here in Paris? This is where that goofy “Boxer’s mom gets killed by burglars” subplot arises, and our hero is called away suddenly to attend her funeral, thus unwittingly dodging his planned assassination – and the entire “Redfern’s body being returned” element is hastily dropped.

Now the plot’s all about McHugh’s attack on Boxer, and it’s dumb because the dude is aware that his wife is screwing Boxer, but doesn’t care. However he almost succeeds in destroying Boxer anyway, only saved when someone (perhaps someone sent by Admiral Stark) shows up with photos of Boxer and Trish together in bed. McHugh drops his case in shame, less the photos be revealed, and ends up divorcing Trish, who happily announces she wants to be with Boxer. Oh and meanwhile Cynthia is long out of the picture, having gotten into another spat with Boxer, who had only been considering her for an “easy fuck,” with no intention of a relationship.

Only in the final pages does the plot announced on the back cover come into play. Basically, the crew of a Russian sub mutinies, and the Sea Savage is sent off to destroy the sub before it can reach western waters. The Shark hurries to get there first, only to find the Sea Savage nearly destroyed after a confrontation with its sister ship. Now Borodine and crew are trapped on the bottom of the ocean, their oxygen running out. Boxer ignores orders from Kinkade and vows to save them. By the way, Kincade’s had a heart attack, after a confrontation with Boxer over his granddaughter…strangely, Kincade wants Boxer to marry the girl, despite how much he hates the man.

The Shark manages to save the crew of the Sea Savage, and the Russians plan to overtake the ship, a fine way to show their gratitude. Meanwhile Boxer’s about to get laid by his fourth woman in the book, hot KGB agent Dr. Suslov, who comically enough first offers herself to Borodine while the Sea Savage is stuck on the ocean floor (they are however unable to do the deed, thanks to the Shark’s timely arrival), and then later that same day waltzes into Boxer’s stateroom and informs him that she wants some good lovin,’ pronto.

But then the klaxons go off, and Boxer sends a still-unsated Suslov back to her quarters, with orders to shoot on sight if she attempts to flee. Now Boxer must contend with Borodine and his crew, who have taken over part of the Shark. And here, the action finally growing heated in the final few pages, Battle Stations comes to an inconclusive end – to be continued next time.

Unfortunately volume 5 is one I don’t have, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

And a curious final note – whereas the previous volume was stated as taking place in the “future” year of 1997, this one is stated as taking place in 1995! In fact it’s expressly stated that the last portion of the novel occurs in October of 1995 – yet this book clearly takes place after the previous volume. Maybe the Shark is the USS Eldridge of its day, unstuck in time due to some Philadelphia Experiment…?

Not that Boxer would notice…he’d be too busy exuberantly fucking.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Katmandu Contract (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #98)

The Katmandu Contract, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1975  Award Books

By this point in the Nick Carter: Killmaster saga, series creator/producer Lyle Kenyon Engel was gone, and the books were solely in the hands of publisher Award Books. Rather than a small stable of authors who turned out a guided series, Nick Carter: Killmaster was now farmed out to an ever-changing lineup of freelance authors, and any sense of a continuing storyline was gone.

One of these new authors was James Fritzhand, who wrote a total of three volumes between 1974 and 1976. Fritzhand was a “literary” author, his first publication being a Pynchonesque tome titled Son Of The Great American Novel, which was released with much fanfare in 1971 and apparently was a major bomb, not even scoring a paperback edition until 1978. (I have it and tried reading it, but just wasn’t feeling it.) Soon afterwards Fritzhand began publishing trashy Hollywood-themed paperbacks, eventually becoming a writer on TV shows like Hotel and Falcon Crest.

But before that he wrote his little trilogy of Killmaster novels. One of the interesting things about this series is that you can excise installments written by the various authors, for what in essence amounts to mini-series within the main series itself. What I’m trying to say is, if The Katmandu Contract is any indication, then Fritzhand’s contributions really do read like a trilogy, as throughout this book he constantly refers back to his previous installment.

Anyway, I once again have Zwolf to thank, as his review really had me wanting to read this book. I found The Katmandu Contract a little more “suspense-thriller” heavy than Zwolf did, though he’s got a definite point that Nick Carter’s taken to Sonny Chiba proportions here; he’s such a martial arts wizard that he can tear people apart with his bare hands. But while the fighting is frequent and well described (if a little too heavy on the technical terminology), for the most part the book is more in the vein of a standard sort of Cold War thriller.

The martial arts feel comes though from the start, as Carter takes us through a few rounds with his all-important (yet likely never before mentioned) Korean karate instructor, Master Chin, who is so floored with Nick’s abilities that he’s dubbed him “The Fist.” From his sparring session Carter’s briefed by boss David Hawk on his latest mission – he’s to find whoever abducted the teen children of Senator Chuck Caulfield, a personal friend of Hawk’s.

Actually, Carter’s to both rescue the kids and kill the abductors. All that’s known is that they’re a terrorist organization calling themselves Sherpa, and they operate out of Nepal, their goal to oust the current rulers. They want a billion dollars worth of uncut diamonds in return for the kids. (Amusingly enough, the actual ransom note only specifies “million,” yet throughout the novel everyone keeps saying “billion.”)

Here the spy thriller stuff commences, as rather than flying to Nepal and unleashing hell, Carter instead flies to Amsterdam to go about turning a billion dollars of AXE funds into uncut diamonds. Also, he’s to do all of this on the hush-hush, as it’s to be kept ultra-secret. He’ll even have to smuggle the diamonds into Nepal. Not that any of this keeps Carter from picking up a hot babe on the flight – Andrea Yuen, an American grad student on her way to Holland for research.

Instead she ends up in bed with Carter, though Fritzhand doesn’t provide any details, other than a goofy bit where Carter informs us that he “buries” his face between her legs. Andrea will prove to be Carter’s only conquest in the novel, another departure from earlier volumes. And also Carter’s a bit more unhinged this time, suspecting Andrea might be an enemy agent, even though he himself picked her up on the plane – even barging in on her aisle while she sat there minding her own business, reading a book!

But when Andrea’s shot by a sniper, obviously she’s cleared by the suddenly-paranoid Killmaster, and off he goes through the streets and canals of Amsterdam in pursuit. This is an endless chase scene which introduces Kunwar, who for the most part is the villain of the piece – a hulking Nepalese karate master who has filed his teeth vampire style. Rather than being the comic book-like villain I expected, Kunwar is instead one of those types given to grand, polite speeches in between the bloody fistfights.

Also this sequence introduces the recurring motif of Kunwar getting away each time Carter goes after him. But meanwhile Carter’s hands are busy with smuggling the diamonds – which he’s gotten from an Amsterdam fence – out of the country, while both evading a suspicious cop and also keeping up on Andrea’s progress at the hospital. Once again the Killmaster has practically fallen in love with a gal, and there are many scenes where he keeps phoning or visiting the hospital, desperate to know if a still-comatose Andrea will survive her surgery.

After another action sequence, which sees Carter’s taxi flying into the Amsterdam canals, our hero takes off for Kabul, Afghanistan. Andrea’s still comatose, her big surgery coming up, but Carter has a timetable. And besides he’s more concerned with informing us of how uncomfortable his stomach feels. After a lot of deliberation we learn that it’s because he’s swallowed a bag which contains the jewels; the bag is secured to a fishing line which is anchored to a hidden compartment in one of Carter’s teeth!

Promptly upon arrival in Kabul Carter is again waylaid by Kunwar, and Fritzhand has built up a nice revenge angle here, as Carter’s just raring to kill the dude. At great length he does, and meanwhile he starts to figure that Kunwar was really working for Prince Bal Narayan of Nepal, rather than the Sherpa terrorists. Fritzhand develops a convoluted storyline in which Narayan, who is ostensibly a member of Sherpa, is secretly working against them, looking to score the diamonds for himself.

We get a taste of a long-gone era as Carter hangs out in the Cabin restaurant, Nepal, which is frequented by hippies and stoners – Carter is especially taken aback by their strange, drug-world lingo, in particular the line “Ripped to the tits.” Here he meets his Sherpa contacts, and they appear to just be college-aged Nepalese radicals. Their leader is even better: Kanti, the gorgeous, 35 year-old “spirit” of the organization.

Fritzhand shocks the expectations of veteran readers of the Killmaster series by not writing a sex scene between Carter and the lady, even though he constantly reminds us of how gorgeous and busty she is. Instead, the two trade verbal barbs, before eventually getting into yet another kung-fu fight; Kanti is a regular Angela Mao, and practially beats the shit out of Carter.

All this is after Carter has exchanged the diamonds for the kids – and speaking of almost-sex scenes, Fritzhand also toys with the reader a bit by having Carter inform us how attractive Senator Caulfield’s teenaged daughter is. I’m sure he did this on purpose, having fun with the genre expectations, making the reader wonder if he’d really go all the way with it. But after depositing the kids on a flight back to the US, Carter heads back to Sherpa HQ, hidden in the caves of Nepal, to both reclaim the diamonds and kill the abductors.

Instead he’s caught, his ass kicked by Shanti, and Lu Tien, the Red China military adviser on the scene, insists that this captured man is none other than the infamous N3 of AXE. But we’re in the homestretch, and after a quick escape and hasty battle, Carter disposes of the Red Chinese, Shanti, and the rest of Sherpa in one of the more anticlimactic finales I’ve yet read, just throwing a bunch of grenades at them. He then takes the time to finish of Prince Narayan before reclaiming the jewels.

And we’ll all breath a sigh of relief to know that Andrea Yuen, back in Amsterdam, has made a complete recovery – per series regulations Carter lets us know the two will be taking a nice long vacation together. Meanwhile he’d be back the following month, in another installment by another author, but Fritzhand wouldn’t return until the following year, with The List, which would be his final contribution to the series.

Overall I found The Katmandu Contract mostly enjoyable, and I liked the badass Killmaster we got in the martial arts scenes, but overall I felt this one was too much in the vein of the later installments of the series, ie ones like Blood Raid, which went for “realism.” But Fritzhand’s writing is good, if too literary for the genre; there’s a lot of fancy word-spinning, metaphors, and analogies getting in the way of the violence (which is minimally described) and the sex (which is not described).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Spider #15: The Red Death Rain

The Spider #15: The Red Death Rain, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1934  Popular Publications

I splurged on this volume of The Spider: when I read that The Red Death Rain was considered one of the more outrageous novels in the series, with it’s Yellow Peril threat, sexpot female villain, and a character raped to death by an orangutan, I decided I would in fact seek out a reprint of the original magazine, complete with the interior illustrations, just to replicate the full pulp experience.

Unfortunately, The Red Death Rain was not one of the novels included in Girasol’s 25-volume “Pulp Doubles” reprint series, nor was it reprinted by Bold Ventures or Pulp Adventures Press, all three of which reprinted novels with the illustrations. It was however reprinted by Caroll & Graf in the early ‘90s, but no illustrations were included with those reprints. My only option, then (other than trying to find the original 1934 printing and shelling out my life savings for it), was to acquire another Girasol publication – that of the “Pulp Replica.”

Girasol is mostly known for publishing exact replicas of old pulp magazines, even down to the typos and sometimes-blurry print. The original advertisements, editorials, and interior illustrations are also included. Sounds great, and looks great, but the price isn’t great…they retail for $39.95 each. Luckily, I got my copy of Girasol’s The Red Death Rain replica on “sale”…for a mere $29.99. I chalked it up as an Xmas present to myself.

And I’m only halfway kidding, because The Red Death Rain actually takes place during Christmas. Christmas of 1934, to be exact, which resulted in an interesting experience as I read the book exactly 80 years after it was published. And this novel truly is of another era, something encapsulated by the primary threat: namely, that smokers are dying from poisoned tobacco.

It might not be a very large slice of the demographic these days, but in 1934 practically everyone smoked…and, per the usual method of Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page, they are dying some quite gory deaths because of it. As the novel opens, Richard Wentworth, the Spider himself, watches in hiding as a group of people stumble out of a tobacco shop, vomiting blood and dying horrible deaths as they shudder and twitch on the sidewalk.

Wentworth is here due to a tip from his “friend,” Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick. Someone has apparently issued a warning to the Spider, threatening him that his “latest case” would have its beginnings outside this very tobacco shop that night. Now, as stated, Norvell Page had a long-simmer “does Kirkpatrick know Wentworth is the Spider or not” storyline which ran the entire ten years he wrote this series, but here once again it seems patently clear that Kirkpatrick does know. The narrative even plainy states it.

Wentworth, who is in a new disguise, that of Cockney-voiced Snuffer Dan Tewkes, rushes into the tobacco shop, only to be accused by the young owner, a man named Steve Jardin, that Wentworth himself is the one who poisoned the tobacco. However, this is the first time our hero has ever stepped foot in the shop. Clearly this is a setup, but “Master of Men” Wentworth can tell that Steve Jardin believes he’s speaking the truth; he really believes that Wentworth was in the shop earlier that day.

The clear culprit, as far as Wentworth is concerned, is a “skeletal man” he saw exit the shop moments before the bloody chaos erupted within. But Wentworth has bigger fish to fry; Commissioner Kirkpatrick arrives, chomping at the bit to arrest Wentworth. I forgot to mention that seconds before the people began dying in the shop, Wentworth heard the voice of his fiance, Nita Van Sloan, calling for him – a warning about Kirkpatrick. But Nita’s disappeared (and remains gone for practically the entire novel), and now here’s Kirkpatrick, acting like a completely different person.

Not only that, but Kirkpatrick’s acting like he wants to flat-out kill Wentworth. Plus he’s blaming him for the poisoned tobacco, fully buying Steve Jardin’s story, and claims no knowledge of providing Wentworth with the written-in threat which brought Wentworth here in the first place.  In other words, he’s acting like he’s lost his mind, and the veteran pulp reader will automatically suspect mind control is at work, though Wentworth takes forever to figure this out.

In what must be an often-used device in the Spider series, Wentworth is actually arrested; this leads to a thrilling escape sequence, which includes Wentworth knocking Kirkpatrick out cold and then impersonating him, even snipping off a few locks of the commissioner’s hair to fashion into a false moustache! Returning to his posh penthouse on Fifth Avenue, Wentworth is able to use his disguise to get around the police cordon that surrounds it.

Upstairs, though, he’s confronted by a pair of “oriental” intruders; further, he discovers his loyal charges Jackson and Ram Singh tied up. Wentworth blows away the intruders, then stamps his infamous Spider seal on their corpses and dumps them off the side of the building -- his building. Our hero doesn’t go to much trouble to guard his secret identity, does he?

Another person happens to be waiting in Wentworth’s home: Steve Jardin, who not only claims that his girlfriend Delia has been kidnapped (and accusing Wentworth of abducting her), but also that he’s been sent here by Kirkpatrick himself – to kill Wentworth! More proof that the police commissioner has gone insane – or, as Wentworth begins to suspect, is actually working with the tobacco poisoners. After convincing the young man of his innocence, Wentworth gets information from him.

Jardin’s lawyer is a “skeletally thin” man named Dewitt Ahearn, and he did in fact visit the tobacco shop tonight. Now, Ahearn has gone to visit the palatial home of cult founder Deacon Coslin, a faux-“puritan” minister who you won’t be surprised to know is rotten to the core. And guess what his spiel is: preaching against the “evils” of smoking. In fact, Coslin has “prophesized” that more people will soon die from the poisoned tobacco.

Off Wentworth goes in the dead of night – disguised as the Spider! In this early volume we learn that the Spider disguise – with the wig of lank hair, the hunchback, the big nose, and the fangs – has a name of its own: “Tito Caliepi.” Apparently under this guise, posing as a streetcorner violinist, Wentworth only has to make a few makeup changes (ie, donning the fangs, etc), and he changes from an “old Italian violinist” into the fearsome presence who is the Spider. In the later volumes I’ve read, it appears that this Tito Caliepi bit has been dropped: the hunchback, fangs, and etc are the Spider look.

Wentworth sneaks onto the rolling grounds of Deacon Coslin, who lives in a veritable fortress, guarded by “great black negroes” who are “turbanned and naked above the waist.” Instead of running into one of them, Wentworth instead finds himself sneaking into a darkened bedroom occupied by a gorgeous Chinese woman – one who not only doesn’t even flinch at the bizarre, shambling figure who has just broken into her room, but who is also holding a gun on him.

This is Wu Ya Che, who stands there in nothing more than a silk nightgown which is “draped about the rounded maturity of her body,” thus perfectly showing off her “magnificent breasts.” Indeed, Page will often go on about Ya Che’s awesome boobs, and her silky black hair’s not bad, either. With her exotic looks and “high cheekbones,” Wentworth surmises that she is of Mongolian descent. She also comes quite close to breaking Wentworth’s steadfast resolve; our hero is completely in love with Nita Van Sloan, an idealized, romantic love which, Page wants us to know, isn’t sullied by sex (because they aren’t yet married, naturally!).

We immediately know that Ya Che’s our kind of gal, as she lounges back on her bed and basically offers herself to Wentworth…while he’s in the hideous disguise of the Spider. This is just the first of her many attempted seductions of our hero. And this is just the first of Wentworth’s many refusals; still pretending to be “an old man” and not the Spider (to which a disbelieving Ya Che responds, “When you look at me, you are not an old man”), Wentworth hobbles out of the room. Ya Che’s dad is Wu Chang, also here in Coslin’s mansion, a venerable old Chinese man who gradually becomes Wentworth’s top suspect.

More chases with the cops, more deaths from the poisoned tobacco, and again Wentworth is alone against everyone. Having ditched the Spider disguise (again, per the early novels, he doesn’t wear it much), Wentworth eventually fingds himself in a cab on Broadway and 61st, where a potential stampede threatens to erupt, due to the rampant bloody deaths of the tobacco; a memorable incident with a department store Santa almost getting stomped to bloody ribbons. But it only gets more memorable, as Wentworth, to prevent mass chaos, takes up a flute and leads the rioters in a rendition of “Silent Night!”

Surely one of the more over-the-top moments one will ever read, this jawdropping sequence has the riotous, insane rabble of New York City gradually singing along with Wentworth, who Pied Piper style has successfully captured his audience with his music and his singing. And even the almost-killed Santa and a couple kids help him out! What’s most awesome is the scene isn’t saccharine; it’s instead so nuts that you just have to laugh. But then, that’s the power of Norvell Page’s prose; he’s so invested in it that he convinces you it all really could happen.

One problem with The Red Death Rain is that the first half doesn’t feature much of the gory violence the series is known for, operating more as a mystery as Wentworth shuttles from one lead to another, desperately trying to figure out who is behind the tobacco poisoning. But around the midway point things kick in gear – the first sign being when Wentworth shoots a thug point-blank in the head during a firefight along an elevated train platform. This is after he’s discovered that the poison is spread by “spring water bottle” delivery trucks; Wentworth chases the poisoners down, blowing them away without mercy.

Wentworth is knocked out, captured. He ends up in a torture room, in wich that damn “skeletal man” appears – wearing a veiled mask. Soon he is referred to as the “Crimson Veil,” and he too is Chinese. As they gut another prisoner to death, Wentworth frees himself, knocks out the chamber’s only light, and a bloody fight ensues. More memorable images, like when Wentworth leans on the torture victim’s corpse and it groans, the air squeezing out of it, thus scaring the superstitious Chinese Wentworth is fighting.

Page just runs with it, with Wentworth hiding beneath the corpse and continuing to press on it, continuing to make it “speak.” He even tries out a ghostly voice, pretending to be the spirit of the deceased! But while his underlings cower, the Crimson Veil is not fooled. Wentworth still manages to gut the torturer with his own knife. An escape, more confusion, and now Wentworth has descended again upon Chinese sexpot Ya Che; he realizes with a jolt that it’s Christmas Eve.

Page delivers a somewhat-moving flashback to the plans Wentworth and Nita had made for this evening. But she’s still missing, kidnapped by whoever is behind this fiendish plot. But no more time for emotions; Wentworth and Ya Che enter her temporary home, only to walk in on an assassination attempt upon her father. As old Wu Chang is knifed, Ya Che almost casually pulls a small pistol from her purse (she also carries a dagger in “the throat of her dress”) and starts blasting away at the Chinese assassins. When Wentworth prevents her from killing the only survivor, in the hopes that they can follow him, she almost goes insane with rage.

But they follow after, and soon Wentworth is knocked out again, but not after he’s killed the elusive Crimson Veil. When Wentworth comes to, he’s in a private chamber in the catacombs beneath the city, and days have passed; it’s December 30th. Ya Che, sexy and tempting as ever, is at his side. She claims that they are both the prisoner of the Red Mandarin, the schemer behind it all. Wentworth, injured from a concusion, is lead into the massive chamber where the villain resides; wearing a “mitred hat” with a red veil covering his face, the Red Mandarin is surrounded by burly Mongol warriors who wield broadswords.

The Red Mandarin gives Wentworth a choice – give his word that he will work for the Mandarin, and Wentworth will go free. If not, then Nita Van Sloan will suffer a horrendous fate. To prove his word, the fiend lets Wentworth see the poor girl. Locked in a cell, wearing the skimpy, revealing clothing of a harem slave (which shows off her “exquisite breasts” and apparently well-compliments her “glorious chestnut hair”), Nita is in the cell beside a lust-crazed orangutan. If Wentworth doesn’t agree to do the Mandarin’s bidding…the orangutan will be set loose upon Nita!

The Red Mandarin wants Wentworth to kill three men for him. One of them is Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick. Wentworth pleads for a day to consider. When he’s sent back to his opulent chamber-cell, he is confronted with another offer: namely, the sexual temptress who is Wu Ya Che. She comes on to him very hard, and a guy would be hard-pressed to say no to her. And Page writes this sequence so that you think, if only for a moment, that Wentworth actually gives in to the woman’s ample charms.

But it turns out to just be a fake; as after a few lines of white space we come back to the scene, only to be informed that Wentworth has in fact spurned the lusty woman’s advances. Now Ya Che is inflamed with another passion – hatred. She wants to see Wentworth suffer and die. From here on out she no longer pretends to be a captive – she is in fact in league with the Red Mandarin, and indeed wants to see Wentworth suffer miserably before he dies. Plus she’ll also ensure that Nita gets raped to death by that damn orangutan.

Wentworth manages to escape his cell and starts killing with glee. Running roughshod through the catacombs, “berserk with killing rage,” Richard Wentworth murders countless Mongol guards in bloody combat, sometimes using his bare hands. Desperation compels him; the Red Mandarin plans to unleash his poison on countless public places at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Have I mentioned that, by this point, five thousand people have already died?

Page does not disappoint with the finale, which sees more mass bloodshed in the Red Mandarin’s throne room. The lust-maddened orangutan is set free, but Nita (along with Delia, Steve Jardin’s girlfriend, who also was locked in the Mandarin’s harem) manages to hide from it, all while Wentworth gets in bloody swordfights and shootouts. Then the “beast” gets sight of Ya Che, who is in the process of desperately trying to open a hidden door. 

Wentworth passes out yet again, and when he comes to, Kirkpatrick is there, freed from his mind control, and the Red Mandarin’s dead, Wentworth having shot him as he attempted to flee. Wentworth blithely announces that he’s already figured out the Red Mandarin was really Wu Chang; a nonplussed Kirkpatrick pulls off the red veil to discover our hero is right. But what of Ya Che? No one has seen her since she attempted to escape. But then…

A horrible cry rang through the corridors, but it was dim in the distance. It was the scream of a woman terribly injured — terribly afraid. It rose high and clear through the night — three, four times. Even in its agony, it was plainly recognizable as Ya Che's voice.

"The roof!" Kirkpatrick barked. "The roof, quickly!"

He plunged from the room and long minutes afterward there continued a fusillade that echoed through the night. Kirkpatrick came back into the room heavily; every eye centered on him as he stopped just inside the doorway. He shuddered uncontrollably.

"We were too late," he said. "Ya Che was dead. The orangutan had mated."

And with that The Red Death Rain comes to a close. While it wasn’t perfect, it was still by far the best volume of The Spider I’ve yet read, and has only whetted my appetite to continue reading these outrageous, violent, lurid tales. The overwhelming length of this review should be an indication of just how much I’m enjoying them.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Killinger #2: The Rainbow/Seagreen Case

Killinger #2: The Rainbow/Seagreen Case, by P.K. Palmer
January, 1974  Pinnacle Books

The second and final installment of the Killinger series is an exercise in tedium, author P.K. Palmer doling out a slow-moving tale that’s rife with repetition. It seems clear though that Palmer, who passed away before publication, intended Killinger to be a sort of Travis McGhee for the Pinnacle line; Pinnacle editor Andy Ettinger is even namedropped in the narrative.  But Palmer forgot to make his tale compelling.

More damningly, The Rainbow/Seagreen Case is almost a direct lift of the previous volume. Once again we are presented with a slow-burn tale which occurs over a few days, with our hero Jedediah Killinger the Third, marine adjustor extraordinnaire, not doing much of anything as he slowly goes about his latest case. And just like last time there are a few busty and bodacious babes around to distract him while he tries to deal with wealthy opponents who scheme behind the scenes. Also like last time, there’s a paucity of thrills and sex, though again the ample ladies are amply described.

But the biggest drag which returns from the previous volume is P.K. Palmer’s frustrating, measured style, in which he constantly stalls forward momentum with his penchant for overwriting. Sequences are repeated over and over again from multiple perspectives, and not in some interesting Rashomon way; no, we’ll just read as Killinger does something, and then read four or more sections in which various foreign agents watch as Killinger does what we just read about him doing. Seriously, the actual content of this 244-page book would only take up about 90 pages. The rest is tedious over-description about menial details…details we’ve already read about several times.

Anyway, picking up “about a year” after the events of The Turquoise/Yellow Case, this volume has 41-year-old Killinger (who we’re informed was a Lt. Col. in the Marines) investigating the crash of a privately-owned B-25 in the Pacific ocean, outside of Santa Barbara. The plane was insured for eleven million dollars, and Killinger, who lives on his fashionable Chinese junk in nearby Oxnard, is hired at great page-length by Marcel Renard, the same Paris-based insurance executive who hired Killinger last time.

Filthy rich “little old lady” L.G. Browne owned the crashed plane and is calling in the insurance policy; Killinger’s job is to ensure against fraud. Browne has dispatched her fussy, dowdy, virginal assistant, Audrey White, to Killinger’s junk; Audrey, who turns out to be Browne’s granddaughter, dresses in old-fashioned clothing from the turn of the century and treats everyone with disdain. She also has different-colored eyes, just like her grandmother, one “soft violet” and the other “icy blue.” This dual-eye color schtick is itself a rerun from The Turquoise/Yellow Case. As I said, this entire book is just a retread of what came before.

Audrey immediately runs afoul of Marjorie, Killinger’s mini-skirt wearing secretary who first came to work for him in the previous volume. Audrey clearly doesn’t like the young lady because she’s black, which elicits a blowout between the two. After making Audrey apologize, Killinger does a repeat of the unfunny “say ‘prunes’” deal from the previous book, ie when Marjorie’s lips pucker when saying “prunes” he sweeps in to kiss her. But after this Marjorie, as well as Killinger’s various other houseboat guests, are removed from the narrative, all of them taking off for a week of surfing in Santa Barbara.

But Killinger instantly suspects something is afoot here. Something appears to have been on the crashed plane, something Browne wanted destroyed. We know it is a “sea green” piece of pipe, because super-hot and super-stacked Marja-Liisa Kikkonen, a “six-foot Viking queen from Finland,” also referred to quite often as a “tigress” and an “Amazon,” happens to find this piece of pipe while scuba diving in the Pacific. With her “wonderously full breasts” and “tawny-gold hair to her waist,” Marja is hot stuff indeed, and is an assistant professor at the University of Santa Barbara.

Marja, despite the “Finland” mention, actually turns out to be from Wisconsin. But she’s still pretty damn exotic, even keeping a pet Cheetah in her posh home. But this strange piece of metal causes trouble for her; she takes it to the chem lab of the university, asking a friend there to run tests on it, to see what it is – the only thing about it is that “AJB” is stamped on it, along with a string of numbers. Instead this sets off an endless “comedic” bit where various foreign agents, both Chinese and Russian, along with CIA, arrive on the scene to find out where this metal was found.

Because, as it labriously turns out, “AJB” is a private military contractor, and this tail piece is part of some experimental MacGuffin L.G. Browne, a board director of the company, funded. However it was apparently a bust, and Browne schemed to destroy it entirely. But the Red Chinese, headed up by Peter Tsai (who poses as a left-leaning professor at Marja’s college), as well as the KGB, headed up by Peter Wegendorff, are looking for the rest of the gizmo. There’s also Marc and Juno, a pair of CIA agents; Juno, as you’d guess, is a smokin’ hot, auburn-tressed beauty with a body nearly the equal of Marja’s.

The reader will of course understand that “ruggedly virile” Killinger is going to bang both these broads, and sure enough he does, even if it takes practically the entire novel. And, again, author P.K. Palmer is a total prude when it comes to the sex, fading instantly to black, even though he has no qualms with going on and on about “wonderously full breasts” and whatnot. But anyway, Killinger himself eventually gets wind of this whole AJB business; that is, once he’s had a number of confrontations with L.G. Browne.

The cantankerous billionaire, who lives in seclusion, reveals that she had an affair with Killinger’s grandfather, calling him a pirate. She also says that she should’ve been his wife, but Killinger the First instead married “a no-good squaw.” She further reveals that the “squaw’s” mother was “part Negro,” having been sired by a “runaway slave.” Killinger is not only aware of this, but proud: “The blood of a brave black man is in my veins,” he says. Palmer tries to build up more “comedy” with this constant banter between Killinger and Browne, but like everything else in the novel it soon grates on the reader’s nerves.

The novel is given over to endless parts where Peter Tsai’s men and Wegendorff’s men monitor Marja or Killinger from afar, reporting back to their superiors – over and over again we read as these spies report back on the exact same info. Throughout The Rainbow/Seagreen Case, you will read the same material again and again. But anyway these spies want to know where Marja found that AJB pipe. Soon Killinger himself shows up at Marja’s doorstep, lead there due to her recent call to AJB HQ.

Here we get one of the few action scenes, as Killinger busts out his “karate quick” moves to take out a pair of studly guys who are actually undercover agents for the Chinese and the Russians. He and Marja have instant chemistry, Killinger escorting her back to his junk in his cherry red ’57 Chevy and making her a big meal, with the understanding that they’re about to have some hot sex. Once again we get tons of detail about Killinger’s teak-made Chinese junk, especially the constantly-mentioned lattice work with all of the sexual depictions on it.

But as mentioned when the two finally get down to it, Palmer cuts straight to the next day. He’s all tease, more content to dole out inconsequential bits of fluff and padding to fill the unwieldy word count. Look, the book is so deadening that I’ll just cut to the chase – Marja found the AJB piece because it was in a channel of fresh water in the sea. There are seven underground lakes that flow into the sea, and Marja is unsure which is the one that spat out the AJB piece. But one of the seven will have the wrest of the wreckage hidden within it.

So, at great friggin’ length, Killinger devises a method of uncovering which lake it is – he will drop all seven colors of the spectrum, ie the “rainbow” of the title, into each lake. So, yellow for one lake, blue for another, etc. It takes at least 30 pages to explain this, not to mention all of the many, many pages devoted to the various CIA, KGB, and Red Chinese spies who watch Killinger from afar and report back to their superiors. People, it’s so mind-boggingly overwritten as to be nauseating. It’s just so boring.

Palmer introduces yet another character to Killinger’s list of companions: Doc Kinneally, a black helicopter pilot who is also apparently a chemist or something. He comes up with the rainbow dyes for Killinger, and there follows a few scenes where he flies Killinger and Marja over the lake as they drop the dye, getting shot at from hidden enemy agents. Palmer has no understanding of suspense or tension, as Killinger et al continuosly fly back to the same lake, despite the hidden snipers afoot. Oh, but we learn that Marja becomes “sexually excited” by it all.

Speaking of Marja, Palmer ushers her out of the text in the final quarter, with some hastily-explained reason that she has to give a conference in Connecticut(?). Killinger escorts her to the airport and returns to his junk…only to find yet another busty bombshell waiting for him. This is auburn-haired Juno, CIA agent who doesn’t even waste time with preliminaries; she screws Killinger straight away, though again it’s another “cut to the next chapter” copout from Palmer. So now, through Juno, the CIA is basically monitoring Killinger as he waits the three days until the dye will filter through to the underwater channel, and he’ll be able to know which lake hides AJB.

The finale features some tepid action, with Killinger again blithely swimming around the same area in which he’s been shot at several times, “surprise” attacked by scuba-outfitted Red Chinese and Russians. Killinger actually kills one of them, gutting the dude with his knife; Killinger’s first and only kill in the series. Meanwhile Juno, a cipher stand-in for Marja, waits anxiously on a boat (rented from “Andy Ettinger’s Boat Sales”) for Killinger to return to the surface. And Doc gets shot but he’ll be okay.

So, L.G. Browne’s fraud uncovered – something about the AJB being a device she funded which turned out to be a bust, so she planned to crash it into the sea and then collect on the insurance to pay back her loss – the old woman’s hauled off to prison. Juno returns to wherever it is that hot CIA agents go, and Killinger ends the novel (which occurs over a single weekend) with yet another female conquest – none other than Audrey White, who apropos of nothing has flowered (likely just due to Killinger’s rugged virility) from a virginal shut-in to a hot-stuff mama who announces to Killinger that she’s about to have sex with him. The end.

Overall, a terrible, terrible book, filled with constant stalling and repetition. But whereas the first volume at least had a goofy, ‘70s charm going for it, this one squanders all promise through its deadening style. In other words, good riddance Jedediah Killinger the Third.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Spider #75: Satan's Murder Machines

The Spider #75: Satan's Murder Machines, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1939  Popular Publications

The Spider returns in an installment published a few years after the previous volume I read, Death Reign Of The Vampire King, though not much has changed – he’s still thrust into a relentless sequence of chases, firefights, and life-threatening traps, all while separated from his usual supporting cast of characters, author Norvell Page (ie “Grant Stockbridge”) showing his protagonist little mercy.

The first novel collected in Baen’s 2008 mass market paperback Robot Titans Of Gotham, Satan’s Murder Machines sees hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth going up against another villain with a name that would one day become associated with another character: The Iron Man. Unlike the later Marvel superhero, this one’s a murderous psychopath who commands a legion of almost-indestructable robots that are tearing apart Manhattan as the novel begins.

The Spider’s already on the scene, this time wearing a mask and veil, so I guess sort of like the original magazine cover depictions of the character mixed with the Shadow’s look? Wentworth has more problems than just the robots, which have torn down a few buildings and killed several people – he’s being framed by whoever’s behind them, framed as both a thief and a murderer. This leads to the novel’s central confrontation: Wentworth versus Commissioner Kirkpatrick, aka Wentworths’ best and only “friend.”

It’s pretty obvious that Kirkpatrick knows Wentworth is the Spider – I’m currently reading an earlier (and crazier) volume of the series, The Red Death Rain, and Page basically states as much in the narrative – but throughout the entire ten-year run of the series it was a constant question if the commissioner would ever get proof of it. As he constantly reminds everyone, as soon as he gets verifiable evidence of who the Spider is, that man will be arrested promptly.

Yet despite all this, Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are pals. Not that you’d know it this volume. While the robots are tearing up the city, Wentworth is busy being shuttled around by Kirkpatrick and his cops, the commissioner almost outright accusing Wentworth of being a murderer. Long story short, someone’s planted stolen artwork in Wentworth’s sprawling penthouse, and also one of his pistols has been stolen, used by this same perpetrator to murder someone.

The opening half features a handful of entertaining scenes in which Wentworth either uses guile or trickery to get around Kirkpatrick and his men, like when he recovers his pistol from the crime scene before the cops can spot it. More entertaining though is the increasingly-hostile banter between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick; no two men could remain “friends” after the amount of vitriol they pour upon one another. Standard with the “series reset” which occurs after every installment, though, I’m sure they’ll be back to being pals by the next volume.

Meanwhile the robots! Early in the novel, while in his Spider guise, Wentworth encounters them. While we never get a good idea how tall the things are, they are sufficiently bulky and massive enough to cause terror in their wake. They also have glowing eyes, and teeth which are memorably compared to shovels. They stampede over everything in their wake, nearly killing Wentworth and his assistant, Ronald Jackson, who served as a sergeant to Wentworth’s major in World War I.

Wentworth soon suspects that these “robots” really house men inside, especially when one of them begins to speak, the booming voice projecting from a grill on the chest. Eventually Wentworth learns he’s correct; these robots are more so powered suits of armor, with men inside them, yet even after this is revealed they’re still referred to as “robots.” Anyway per series standards how exactly these robot suits were created is never explained; Page is more focused on action and thrills.

And he succeeds -- Satan’s Murder Machines is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it even more than Death Reign Of The Vampire King. One of the main reasons for this is that the supporting characters get more of a chance to shine, this time. In particular Nita Van Sloan, Wentworth’s fiance – there are a few scenes where she not only saves Wentworth, but poses as the Spider herself, usually so as to distract the cops. This includes a great moment where Kirkpatrick and his cops are escorting Wentworth out of a building, and are shocked by the sudden appearance of the Spider, who shoots over their heads and thus gives Wentworth opportunity toe scape.

The Wentworth/Nita moments provide a better understanding of why these two stay together, perennially “about to be married” but never taking the plunge due to Wentworth’s commitment to fight crime. But Page makes it clear that Nita is the same as her man, just as (psychotically?) devoted to taking on criminals, even if it means “true happiness” must be curtailed. Like her fiance, Nita even enjoys donning disguises; in this installment she takes on an apparently-frequent guise of a streetwalker, which leads to some humorous banter between her and Wentworth in a bar.

But really Satan’s Murder Machines is Wentworth’s show; while Nita, Jackson, and “Hindustani” colleague Ram Singh make scattered appearances in the opening half, Wentworth is relegated to working alone, mostly due to his wanted status by the police. Also, Jackson gets arrested for moving a body, so as to help foil the scheme to frame Wentworth, and Nita gets captured after drugging Wentworth and, once again, going out to do the Spider’s work on her own.

This is just another highlight in a novel filled with them; Wentworth midway through gets in an underwater battle with a few robots in the East River, trying to track them to their hideout. He manages to destroy one, but due to the freezing cold (the novel occurs in December, the same month it was published) he’s come down with the flu. Refusing to allow her man to go back underwater to find the robot shell, Nita instead slips our boy a mickey and then goes out to do it herself!

But as mentioned, she gets caught, and now Wentworth works alone again, trying to free her from the minions of the Iron Man. Speaking of which, the villain gets little narrative time, and in fact isn’t even described. There’s a part where Wentworth is fighting a few robots, one of whom is stated as being the Iron Man, but how Wentworth knows this is not mentioned. Is his suit of armor larger, or differently colored? Page doesn’t inform us, but then he was banging out about a million words a month, so we can forgive him if he sometimes misses little details.

Speaking of costumes, Wentworth wears a variety of them this time, from the “mask and veil” getup to the more-standard Spider disguise of the hunched back, lank hair, and fangs. I do love his thoroughness, though; when in a late sequence where he takes out one of the robots and appropriates the armor, Wentworth stamps his spider seal on the forehead, so everyone will know that this particular robot is none other than the Spider!

One thing missing this volume is the OTT violence of the series; since his opponents are armored robots, Wentworth is unable to blow their faces off as per usual. He does still find ways to kill them, either by ramming cement trucks into the robots or electrocuting them. Innocents still suffer, though, with men, women, and children being torn apart by the marauding robots, in particular a part where they destroy a tenement building. Here Page goes to the trouble of describing a woman and her child meeting a horrible fate at the metal hands and feet of the robots.

The novel is filled with scenes of Wentworth narrowly evading the robots, destroying one or two of them if he can, and keeping others from danger, in particular Kirkpatrick and his cops. There’s a great part where Wentworth, again as the Spider, poses briefly as a cop, commandeering the bullhorn in Kirkpatrick’s car to call off the cops, who otherwise would be destroyed by the robots. This climaxes with Kirkpatrick and the Spider meeting face-to-face; I got a chuckle how Kirkpatrick immediately went for his gun and snapped off a shot. Cops in the ‘30s didn’t mess around.

Wentworth pulls off many superhuman feats, from wrestling robots beneath the Hudson to shooting through the finger-muzzle of one of them, blowing up its entire arm. He does all of this while still clearing his name (thus leading to a truce with Kirkpatrick) and figuring out who the Iron Man is. Unlike what I assume is the standard norm, this particular secret identity seems to be at least a little planned out, with Page introducing the person midway through the tale and spending an entire sequence with him. It’s my understanding that most of these “surprise reveals” turn out to just be random characters briefly mentioned.

This was another fast-paced Spider yarn which barely allowed the reader to catch his breath, plunging Richard Wentworth into one confrontation after another. What’s most surprising then is how Norvell Page is still able to shoehorn in some fun dialog and memorable character exchanges amid all of the chaos; there are even minor references to earlier adventures, which no doubt would be pleasing to long-time readers.

The other Page novel collected in Robot Titans Of Gotham by the way is the first and only volume of an obscure 1939 pulp “series” titled The Octopus (which coincidentally or not happened to be the name of the villain in the 1938 Spider serial The Spiders Web). It’s my understanding this novel was only co-written by Page. At any rate I haven’t read it yet, and will instead move on to more Spider volumes.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Midnight Lightning (aka Steel Lightning #1)

Midnight Lightning, by Kevin Sherrill
August, 1989  Pinnacle/Zebra Books

About as obscure as a paperback original can be, Midnight Lightning is one of those late ‘80s publications that bears the Pinnacle imprint but in reality is a Zebra publication. It’s also the first of a three-volume men’s adventure series,* even though there was no series title or volume numbers. (The spine however labels the book as “Men’s Adventure.”)

Kevin Sherrill appears to have been a real person, as the book is copyright him. Style-wise he proves himself capable of doling out the OTT thrills the genre demands, though ultimately the book is stymied by its exorbitant page count – 351 pages, the typically-overblown Zebra paperback length. And the guy POV-hops like crazy, sometimes even changing the character perspective in the middle of a sentence He commits almost as great a sin by referring to his characters by various names in the narrative, which can really confuse a reader.

The novel comes off like an ‘80s take on Death Wish, a total Canon Group type of movie idea, where a gang of New Yorkers, their lives ruined by acts of crime, band together beneath the guidance of a tough veteran cop and become a well-armed, well-trained urban vigilante squad. Be warned though that the vast majority of Midnight Lightning is all about the training; the actual vigilante stuff doesn’t even get started until around page 300. Glances through future volumes indicate that they more quickly get to the good stuff.

When Sherrill gets going, he proves himself in the caliber of David Alexander, and there were times I wondered if “Kevin Sherrill” was the pseudonym of our old Phoenix-authoring pal. This similarity is mostly displayed in the opening pages, which purport to illustrate the cruelties that our heroes suffer, the injustices which make them become vigilantes. But it’s all done so over the top that it comes off as farce.

First we have Barbara Cohen, an attractive young lady with one bizarre backstory, a backstory which Sherrill appears to change as he goes along. I also couldn’t figure out if she was a brunette or a blonde, as I think she’s described both ways. Anyhow, poor Barbara is on the way from work late one evening, where she apparently serves as the assistant to the DA or something. (And yet, we’re also informed she was once a hooker…as well as a drug-addicted porn star??) A pair of men ambush her outside of her Lower East Side apartment, take her away, and proceed to rape and abuse her for pages, even slicing her up in unspecified ways. Indeed, Barbara’s injuries are never fully described, which makes it all the more unsettling, as it plays on your mind.

Next there’s Joseph Vernick, a WWII vet who ownes a small grocery store in the Lower East Side. One night a gang of hispanic youth come in and terrorize the place. When burly and beefy Vernick fights them off, one of them whips out a pistol – and shoots Vernick’s wife. Now the elderly lady has been rendered to a vegetable, life support the only thing that keeps her alive.

Moses Allison is a former pro footballer, where he acquired the nickname “Dr. Pain.” But that was years ago, and now Moses is happy living with his white girlfriend. The fact that Moses is black is very upsetting to a group of neo-Nazis, all of whom begin terrorizing him. This has its beginnings one afternoon when Moses is ambushed by a group of them, including some Nazi girls. Moses fights them off, but is shot several times by the leader of the gang. As with the others, the cops/legal system prove incapable of bringing them to justice.

Next there’s Miguel Negron, a streetwise hispanic who grew up in the Lower East Side and has avoided the gangs and the drugs. His joy in life is playing the saxophone, which he does on the street corner for small change. He’s mugged one night and when the men try to take his precious sax, he goes nuts. When they threaten to slice off his lips, he goes even more nuts. But the thugs end up mutilating his lips anyway, slicing them in half and thus ruining Miguel’s chances of ever playing sax again.

Finally there’s Brian Benson, whose sad backstory is the most horrific of all, which is to say it’s also the most farcial. A closeted gay and incredibly shy and introverted, Brian lives alone and works as a data programmer. One night he comes home to find three burly bikers waiting in his apartment. The men proceed to rape him horribly, culminating in their lighting Brian on fire. But despite the flames which engulf him, Brian lives on, even staring the bikers down as they flee the burning apartment.

Meanwhile we are introduced to John DiNatale, a 40-something veteran NYC cop and ‘Nam vet. Sherrill seems to have clearly had Bruce Willis in mind here, as DiNatale’s balding pate is often mentioned – just like Bruce Willis’s hairline circa 1989. Despite his awesome record, DiNatale was kicked off the force for outright murdering a serial killer/pedophile, shooting the man point-blank during a police interrogation. This in addition to his other flagrances of the law (also depicted via overlong flashbacks) finally resulted in DiNatale’s dismissal.

But in a retread of the earlier Hawker series, DiNatale is contacted by a wealthy businessman who offers to fund a private war on crime. Just as in that earlier series, DiNatale will be set up with state-of-the-art technology and weapons, and will get to be field commander of an army he creates. Now he just has to find his soldiers. Walking through the Lower East Side one night, DiNatale comes upon a public gathering where the locals are listening to a speech by the police commissioner, who promises to curtail the rampant crime, something which brings forth a lot of laughter.

DiNatale encounters our unfortunate victims, every single one of whom has gathered here tonight, “as if by fate.” Now, Sherrill never says exactly how long ago each of them suffered their horrors, but they’re all healed up enough to be out and about. Even Barbara Cohen, who was apparently beaten and cut to the state of being unrecognizable, is back to looking like her usual hotstuff self. And Brian Benson is there, a scarred, skeletal shambles of a man whom Sherrill will exploit throughout the narrative, comparing him to a monster.

Anyway, DiNatale knows he’s found his soldiers as soon as he sees them. They meet at a bar, where he offers them the chance to strike back at crime. Brian even shows up, and we readers see that he has become a completely different character, consumed with vengeance. He’s almost been burnt to a crisp, and wears dark glasses. He also enjoys exploiting his own “freakish appearance” by scaring people who openly stare at him. He speaks in a ragged whisper, and seems more like a figure from a horror movie than a real person.

Now begins the Dirty Dozen-esque training, which serves to take up the majority of the narrative. Sherrill hopscotches around his large cast of characters, making for a bumpy ride, because the dude POV-hops like a mother. One paragraph we’re in say DiNatale’s thoughts, and the next paragraph (or even sentence) we’re suddenly in say Barbara’s thoughts – no white space or anything to clue to the reader that the perspective has changed.

Worse yet, Sherill lacks consistency with character names: DiNatale is referred to as “DiNatale,” “John,” and even “J.D.;” Moses is “Mose,” “Moses,” and “White,” and most confusing of all Miquel is referred to as “Miquel,” “Negron,” and even “Micky!” And all this in the narrative, mind you; it’s fine for the characters to refer to each other by various names, I mean that’s just like in real life. But when the narrative itself jumps around – sometimes without even warning you, like with the “J.D.” and “Micky” stuff – you can get easily confused.

Anyway the training stuff goes on and on, from DiNatale teaching them how to defend themselves with martial arts to even laughable stuff where he teaches them how to use ninja throwing stars – part of every New York cop’s bag of tricks, I guess. Finally the gun-porn arrives and goes on for quite some time, with each of the characters picking up their own favored piece. Most memorable is Brian, who takes to a .44 Magnum with relish, furthering his image as a sort of shadowy personification of Death itself.

True to Zebra form the book is vastly overblown, meaning there’s all kinds of shit Sherrill likely added to meet his word count. In addition to the rampant and unecessary flashbacks that pepper the first half of the book, there’s also lame and bizarre stuff past the midway point like where DiNatale takes his “troops” out into the no man’s land of Brooklyn and has them get in a chase with some cops. Even more time-wasting is a part where he takes them out to the Catskills, to run across a field while they’re shot at by cannons fired by a psychotic old ‘Nam pal of DiNatale’s who’s become a mercenary.

It’s not until page 300 that we get to the actual revenge – and even then it’s only minimally dealt out, Brian being the only one who gets to take vengeance on his tormentors. Meanwhile the scum who destroyed the lives of the others go free; in particular Sherrill leaves a whole subplot unexplored, where neo-Nazis are terrorizing Moses and his wife. Perhaps this stuff will be dealt with in the next novel, but still you sort of wish Sherrill had skipped all of the time-wasting stuff and just gotten down to the gory revenge scenario promised by the front and back covers.

I forgot to mention the gadgets and gear DiNatale supplies his team with. First there’s the “war truck,” or watever you want to call it; a ‘40s Dodge panel truck that’s been armored and remodeled into a tank on wheels. There’s even a gadget in the dashboard that foils police scanners into misreading the truck’s actual speed. The team is outfitted with state-of-the art weaponry and endless ammo, and they operate out of the Meat Locker, a Lower East Side tenement that spans three floors and has been converted into basically an army base; DiNatale lives there with his girlfriend. Finally the team has been outfitted with “Kevlar suits,” which while not fully bulletproof should prevent major harm.

Brian’s tormentors are chosen as the first to taste the wrath of DiNatale’s unnamed group of vigilantes. These are a group of degenerate bikers who run out of a condemned building where they sometimes bring back kidnapped children to drug and rape! And of course the courts and police can do nothing to stop them due to the usual action-novel nonsense. Currently they’re in the process of debasing and degrading a preteen runaway whom they plan to kill off once they’re sick of her. One thing’s for sure, Sherrill really makes the reader want to see these motherfuckers pay.

In the final pages we get a violent action scene as Brian first taunts out the bikers who tortured and raped him – and opens up on them with a flamethrower! After which the rest of the troops bust into the burning building and raise hell on full auto. In these sequences Sherrill finally cuts loose, and it’s unfortunate he doesn’t more often in the novel. As it is, only the opening and closing portions of Midnight Lightning reach the lurid excess this genre demands. But when Sherill’s on, he’s on, almost up there with David Alexander – he even has that author’s penchant for veering into straight-up homoerotica when writing about guns:

[Brian] now wore his “Dirty Harry Special” all the time. And the fully-charged stunner was never far from his hand. He could haul his big rod out and shoot a load or two or more at the least provocation. His rod felt hot in its holster because the men to whom he had promised an Instant Replay weren’t far away at all.

He’s talking about his .44 Magnum, of course!

Speaking of erotica, Sherrill even delivers a fairly-explicit sex scene, as DiNatale graphically bangs his live-in girlfriend, an incredibly young druggie/hooker or something. This girl doesn’t deliver much to the proceedings, other than to call up DiNatale on the Meat Locker’s intercom and ask him to come over to her room for a quick fuck. We also get some stuff about Barbara Cohen now being a lesbian, unable to think of men “that way” anymore after her horrific rape…so Sherrill compensates by throwing in an out-of-nowhere flashback/dream sequence to her days as a porn star.

As mentioned, only Brian gets his vengeance in this first novel, and its bloody (and fiery) vengeance indeed. But by the time DiNatale’s troops roar out in their armored trucks, just as the cops show, the novel’s already come to an end – and the other criminals are still out there. Here’s hoping the next novel delivers, and also that it isn’t hampered like this one was by pointless digressions and padding.

*Midnight Lightning was followed in 1991 by Steel Lightning. The series concluded in 1992 with the similarly-titled Steel Lightning: Slash and Burn. To make it even more confusing, these two novels had identical covers, only with “Slash And Burn” on the cover of the third volume differentiating the two. (Also, this third volume was published under the Zebra imprint, whereas the first two bore the Pinnacle imprint.)