Monday, September 15, 2014

Dark Angel #2: The Emerald Oil Caper

Dark Angel #2: The Emerald Oil Caper, by James D. Lawrence
March, 1975  Pyramid Books

If you’ve ever been reading The Baroness and thought to yourself, “This is good and all, but what if, instead of a spy, the Baroness was a private investigator? And what if she was black??”, then you are in luck, because the four-volume Dark Angel series answers those very questions.

Like The Baroness, Dark Angel is copyright book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, who with his usual gift for capitalizing on trends must’ve seen a few Pam Grier movies (or at least saw how much money they were making) and decided yet another paperback series was in order. He even contracted James D. Lawrence, the man who had co-created black comic strip character Friday Foster (which itself was turned into a Grier movie in 1975), to write the series.

The only problem is, the Dark Angel series is woefully overpriced in the used books marketplace, much like another Engel production, Operation Hang Ten, though not to that absurd extent. Unlike that series, though (or at least the volume of it I’ve so far read), Dark Angel is worth tracking down, and it's even better than the sometimes-static and repetitive Baroness series.

Our hero is Angela “Angie” Harpe, who we are informed is known as “The Dark Angel” by the cops and the underworld. Like the Baroness, her beauty and body is frequently mentioned in the narrative, as is her expansive wardrobe, which as in the Baroness books lends the series a trash fiction vibe. And again like the Baroness, Angie is rich and lives the jet-set life, and her main home is a penthouse suite in Manhattan which is described as a very swank ‘70s-style pad, though we learn she plays classical music on her hi-fi instead of the more-expected Love Unlimited Orchestra or Barry White.

Angie has had a colorful history to say the least; she was raised in the ghetto, but through her intelligence she was able to get into Radcliffe, where she graduated with flying colors. Oh, but she also worked as a hooker…before briefly serving as an NYPD cop(!!). She also did some glamor modeling on the side to support herself while in college (while still hooking as an independent, high-class escort), but also to save up money so she could fund her true dream…being a private detective! Like Killinger, Angie now handles big, multimillion-dollar cases for insurance companies.

So, again like the Baroness, Angie Harpe is idealized, but unlike the Baroness she doesn’t come off as a self-centered glory hound. She gets off on danger, and treats her cases with snarky aplomb, which lends the series an intentional camp vibe, with Angie often poking fun at the situations she encounters and the weird characters she meets. And she meets a very weird character early in The Emerald Oil Caper, a lecherous old masked man who is chaffeured around in a big limo.

After being suspiciously called out of her penthouse in the middle of the night, Angie gets in the limo with this strange dude who contacted her; first he asks if, for a thousand dollars, he can “kiss and fondle” her breasts. When Angie says no, he then offers a thousand bucks for her underwear! This she agrees to, giggling at the strangeness of it all as she slips off her “nylon bikini panties” from beneath her miniskirt. My friends, when the old freak in his half-mask started sniffing the panties, holding them right over his face, I knew I was reading a trash masterpiece. And it was only page 16!!

While The Emerald Oil Caper does manage to reach several other such trashy heights, truth to tell it does come off as a little plodding at times. But then, it runs to 220 pages of small print, and thus is similar to other Engel-produced paperbacks in that it’s a little too long for its own good. However, also like other Engel-produced books, it’s pretty well written (even though Lawrence POV-hops like crazy), and it so captures its era that you can almost hear a jazz-funk soundtrack playing in your head.

Anyway, the panty-sniffer turns out to be Xerxes Zagrevi, an Iranian oil tycoon who wants Angie to find out if an oil “wildcatter” named Laidlaw Pike has found oil in Columbia. So Angie breaks into Pike’s suite and snoops around. The novel is filled with kinky details, and here we get another, as Angie discovers a redheaded “sex robot” in a big trunk by Pike’s bed. But when Pike himself enters the room, Angie distracts him the best way she knows how – pretending to be a hooker sent up by management, and proceeding to screw Pike senseless!

There’s a fair bit of sex in The Emerald Oil Caper, but unlike the Baroness books the sex scenes don’t go on and on. In fact, most of them are only a paragraph long, and barely described, Lawrence moreso going for the metaphorical approach. Have no fear, though, as Angie’s lush body is often described in detail, and as mentioned the novel has a very kinky, at times sadistic bent to it. In fact I found it more kinky than the Baroness books, with Lawrence serving up sex robots, a sadomasochistic anal rapist (not of the Tobias Funke variety), lesbian sex, an over-the-hill tramp who strips and likes to be lead around on a leash, and copious scenes of a nude Angie either being tortured, threatened by rape, or stripping so as to distract someone.

Well, the guy Angie thinks is Laidlaw Pike turns out to be a young strapping dude named Jack Bristol, who himself was snooping around in Pike’s apartment. Jack hires Angie himself; Jack’s father, another oil prospector, was recently murdered, and Jack’s certain it has something to do with an oil field supposedly discovered down in Columbia. The majority of The Emerald Oil Caper is really a murder mystery, with Angie and Jack hurtling from one location to another, interviewing suspects and getting in the occasional fight scene – not to mention engaging in the occasional sex scene with one another.

Angie has a knack for running afoul of people, most of whom just want to get her off of the investigation, and her ethnicity is very often brought up by these people, in particular the fact that she was a black prostitute (though these are not the two words used to describe her). Beyond the heavy kink factor, The Emerald Oil Caper is filled with racist invective and slander and etc, all of which only lends it more of a pulpy, Blaxploitation feel. I also found it interesting that, at least in this volume, Angie only has sex with Caucasians – both male and female.

Lawrence delivers a handful of action scenes, but most of the novel is dialog and investigation. Angie handles herself well in the various scuffles, using martial arts moves. She has her own cache of gadgets, from a big purse that has a steel bar built into the bottom which she uses to brain several people, to a cat burgular type device that lets her scale walls. She also carries a Baby Browning pistol in the purse, and is handy with a variety of sidearms. And she can also blank her mind by flashing on “The One” when she needs to calm herself!

As part of her investigation Angie once again becomes a hooker, going undercover with a group of high-class whores to a party for oil executives. To accomplish this Angie engages in the lesbian sex mentioned above; when she discovers that one of her former coworkers is going to the party, Angie goes over to the gal’s place to booze her up and have some friendly sex with her to really tucker her out (a scene which features the unforgettable line, “Please, darling! Would you sixty-nine me?”). When the girl passes out, boozed, screwed, and drugged, Angie takes her place in the stable of notorious Harlem pimp Longdong Strong, aka “The Abominal Cunt Man,” who got his nickname because he’s “cut more broads than Vidal Sassoon!”

This section in particular is very sleazy and sadistic, with Angie captured (just as she’s going down on the oil exec she’s trying to, uh, pump for info) by Longdong’s goons and taken back to a Harlem pad. Here the pimp himself tortures her with a pair of “pimp sticks,” ie two wire coathangers that are wrapped together, which Longdong uses to whip Angie right on her most private of areas! This is easily the most unsettling scene in the novel, and again quite similar to all of those times in the Baroness books were Penny was captured, stripped, and tortured, before escaping in some novel method.

With all of the sleaze and kinkiness, one can’t really fault Lawrence for sort of dropping the ball on the finale. Sure, Angie’s nude throughout (stripping to a “throbbing Rolling Stones song” so as to distract her would-be murderers), and Lawrence packs in a little bit of gore, with people getting shot, stabbed, and crushed, but our heroine and her boyfriend Jack are suddenly relegated to supporting status. When the villain behind it all is revealed, instead of Angie taking him on, suddenly it’s one of his colleagues who shows up to do the deed, and Jack and Angie run away to hide while those two are killing each other.

But still, I really had a lot of fun reading The Emerald Oil Caper. It’s a shame the Dark Angel books are so overpriced, but I’ll definitely track down the rest of them someday.

And what the heck, here’s the sequence with that redheaded sex robot, as Angie presses the activation switch that’s hidden at the nape of the robot’s neck:

Almost at once she could feel the plastic flesh begin to warm beneath her fingers. A subtle funky aroma of female perspiration and genital exudation rose to her nostrils. The dummy’s hips began to move in a suggestive rhythm. Its arms reached out, its eyes opened and closed, its lips moved. 

“Oh, please! … Fuck me, darling! … Fuck me hard!” 

As the recorded voice spoke from somewhere inside the robot’s head, its knees moved up and back, its hips revolved upward, and its thighs spread wide, revealing the moistly open lips of incredibly realistic genitals. 

“Sorry, sister,” giggled Angie. “I’ve got a headache tonight.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man

The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man, by Bruno Rossi
November, 1974  Leisure Books

Johnny Sharpshooter Rock returns in a fairly good tenth installment that’s a hell of a lot better than the previous volume. First-time series author John Marshall delivers a Rock that comes off like a combo of Peter McCurtin's original version and the more neurotic character Len Levinson gave us; like McCurtin’s take this Johnny is crazy about guns, and like Len’s he’s crazy about killing mobsters.

As usual, continuity doesn’t exist; in the opening pages we learn that Rock has spent the past month out of the country, with “two of the last four weeks in Acapulco,” taking a vacation after fighting a branch of the Mafia in Puerto Rico. So then, could Hit Man be yet another Sharpshooter novel in which the author thinks he’s writing a volume of The Marksman? I wonder this because, you guessed it, Philip Magellan took on the Mafia in Puerto Rico in The Marksman #5: Headhunter, published a year before Hit Man.

Len informed me that when he was brought onto the series, McCurtin just sent him a few volumes of the three series which made up this bizarre triumvirate as background material, ie The Sharpshooter, The Marksman, and the source series, The Assassin. I’m assuming then that McCurtin did the same with Marshall, just giving him the latest books in the various series to help him with this book. Also, Headhunter was published around the time Marshall would’ve been writing Hit Man. (Len’s also told me that it took “about a year” for his manuscripts to be published.)

Anyway, all this could be nothing and maybe Marshall just pulled “Puerto Rico” out of the air as a place for Rock to have recently been, because otherwise Hit Man isn’t a sequel to that Marksman novel or any other novel, even in the Sharpshooter series. But Rock here does display some Magellan tendencies, from an “armory case” he has made at great expense (and detail) which carries his vast arsenal, to a penchant for donning disguises; the novel opens with Rock shaving off a moustache he apparently sported in Acapulco, to fool any possible mob sightings.

Checking up on the stock he still owns in the family company, Rock also checks the mail that’s accumulated for him in New York. Here he finds a letter from an old ‘Nam buddy, Mike Reid. We’re informed that Mike actually saved Rock’s life during the war, heading out into the night to find a lost and wounded Johnny, and now the man, who owns a cleaning company in Los Angeles and lives with his wife and daughter, has run into trouble with the Mafia. Having seen a photo spread on Rock in “a slick detective magazine,” Mike instantly realized that this character named “Johnny Rock” was none other than his old army pal, John Rocetti.

The letter is a month old, but Rock heads out to LA posthaste. Marshall delivers the goofy sleaze with Rock checking out a stewardess and her “pert ass,” and after he feels her up she goes back to his seat, tells him it’ll cost a hundred bucks, and then proceeds to give him a blowjob! Rock even goes home with her in Los Angeles, leaving a few hundred dollars on her nightstand before leaving.

When Rock meets up with Mike, his pal claims that the mob stuff blew over. Rock doesn’t believe it, but leaves anyway. Soon he learns that the LA area is made up of two families, the Franzias and the Scarpellinos, with a Don Lorenzo serving as godfather and keeping the two families from going to war. Rock finds all this out first-hand when, driving on a steep road, he gets in a wreck with a Cadillac, which happens to be driven by a good-looking Italian woman. Her brutish passenger, an obvious mobster, tries to pull a gun on Rock, who blithely blows him away.

The lady is named Maria Belamonte, and she thanks Rock profusely. She claims to be from Ohio, and came here because her kid sister got involved with the Scarpellino family, and ended up hooked on heroin and now dead. The guy Rock just wasted was a Scarpellino, and Rock did Maria a big favor. Later Rock even takes out the don of the Scarpellinos. After this Maria calls him over to her apartment to show him her appreciation – right in her swank bedroom with its ceiling mirrors and round bed. (Marshall by the way doesn’t get into details in the sex scenes.)

But when Rock and Maria are caught in a failed hit the following morning, Rock instantly suspects something once he’s taken out the hitmen; none of them took a shot at Maria. He’s also figured out that Mike’s wife Ginny and his ten year-old daughter have been taken captive by the Franzias. This latter part he learns, again first-hand, when he comes back to his hotel room to find a gun-toting Mike waiting for him. After disarming his old buddy, Rock gets the full sob story, that the Franzias are holding the two captive until Mike signs over his business to the mob. And Mike had a gun on his pal because he was afraid Rock would stir up trouble and get his family killed.

So as you can see, there’s a bit more plotting and scheming in this installment than most others. Rock himself is a bit more of a schemer and planner in Marshall’s hands, carefully plotting out his attacks and ensuring there are no complications. But he’s kind of stupid so far as protecting his comrades goes. Rock heads off to scope out the Franzia retreat where Mike’s wife and kid are being held, and just leaves Mike there alone. Guess what happens? The Scarpellinos send someone over, get Mike, torture him to find out when Rock plans to hit the Franzia place, and then kill him.

The rescue of Mike’s family is entertaining, with Rock in camo with his face painted like he’s back in ‘Nam, but Marshall doesn’t really play up the action scenes. Rock just sprays people with whatever gun he’s carrying and the people fall down. When he discovers some Scarpellino thugs showing up to ambush him – having learned of his hit from a tortured Mike – he easily deals with them. In fact, Rock is never once in trouble in the entire book, but this is typical of the series. Even a part where he gets vengeance on the Scarpellino who killed Mike, blowing him away point-blank with a hidden derringer, sees Rock making an easy escape.

The highlight of the book is Ginny Reid, who turns out to be even more bloodthirsty than Rock. She wants vengeance for her dead husband and, after sending her kid off on a plane, demands that Rock let her help kill some Scarpellinos. Her first victim is Maria, whose story has turned out to be a lie; she’s really a drug-addict hooker who works for the Scarpellinos. Ginny kidnaps her, ties her up, and in a darkly comic scene tortures her with a car battery, jamming the prod in horrific places. This is probably the only scene in the entire Sharpshooter series in which Johnny Rock tells someone they’re being too brutal! In fact he puts Maria out of her misery with a mercy shot.

Rock and Ginny make a good pair, along the lines of Rock and Iris, way back in the first volume. Marshall doesn’t deliver the expected sex scene between the two, but then, Ginny’s husband was just killed, and as Rock reminds himself, “No matter how horny you are, you just don’t screw your best friend’s wife.” She aids in the final assault in the novel, where Rock again carefully plans an ambush on a lodge in which Don Lorenzo is meeting with the Scarpellinos and Franzias. In fact Ginny does most of the work, firing a grenade launcher from a tree while Rock hides in some bushes and guns down anyone who comes out.

Marshall’s writing is pretty good, with the caveat that he really tells a lot more than he shows. And speaking of which, most of Hit Man is comprised of Rock telling people what he plans to do…and then later we see him doing it. There are several sequences where he’ll just sit around, sipping scotch, and say stuff like “After this, I shall then…” And yeah, Rock says “shall” a lot this time out; in fact, the characters here all speak much too formally, with contractions rarely if ever used.

Also, Hit Man is littered with typos, even more than the Leisure Books norm. I mentioned this to Len, and he sent me this response, which I enjoyed so much I thought I’d share it with the rest of you:

Copyediting at Leisure (BT) probably was done by several people including Peter, Milburn, Jane Thornton and freelancers, depending upon the book and year it was published. BT was a low end company. They paid less for everything, which means they didn't always hire the best people. Peter probably couldn't work at a company like Bantam, because he was too much of a rebel and free spirit, and probably didn't graduate from college. He also had a few teeth missing, which didn't fit the major publisher image. But he was a great man in his own way. I really miss him.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Aquanauts #2: Ten Seconds To Zero

The Aquanauts #2: Ten Seconds To Zero, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

The second volume of The Aquanauts is less static than the first, with hero William “Tiger Shark” Martin not only more active in the plot, but also sent on a mission that has world-changing implications. Manning Lee Stokes once again doles out the over-long tale in his own stilted, page-filling style, but it’s a style I do enjoy.

Picking up a few months after Cold Blue Death, in late September (which would mean then that it’s September, 1969), Ten Seconds To Zero opens with several US Polaris nuclear subs being destroyed while on routine patrol around the world. Crusty vet Admiral Hank Coffin, returning from the previous volume, is certain the Russkies have invented an underwater anti-submarine missile. Gradually we learn that Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet might have some leads on this mysterious weapon.

Tiger Shark is picked to gather these leads, the President (clearly identified as Nixon) hedging all his bets on the Secret Underwater Service, for which Martin is the one and only Tiger Shark. (And speaking of which, he’s only referred to as “Tiger” or “Tiger Shark” throughout the entire narrative this time, which again lends the novel a comic book tone.) Tiger is now a Lt. Commander, promoted after his success in the previous volume – but having read that novel, I’m not really sure what exactly he was promoted for. But that’s the military for you.

Tiger takes his high-tech private sub KRAB into the Mediterranean and makes his way for Gaza. Here in a nice sequence he makes a nighttime beach landing and hooks up with a group of Israeli agents who are in continuous warfare with the neighboring Egyptians. They operate out of a massive fortress, built in the 10th Century, and Tiger’s main contact turns out to be an attractive Shin Bet agent named Rebecca Rose, a captain in the Israeli army.

Shin Bet’s leads are a series of photos, lifted during a raid on a USSR-aligned Egyptian force, of what appears to be a missile-launching platform, codenamed “Sea Serpent.” Tiger is certain this is the anti-sub device he seeks. Rebecca gives him a ride back to the beach…where she proceeds to give him a whole ‘nother sort of ride. Stokes sets up the expected sex scene with Rebecca’s revelation that her husband was killed two years ago, and she hasn’t had a man since, and she’s told herself that the next man she has will be a stranger. Tiger fits the bill.

Stokes definitely has a sadistic streak, because after the somewhat-explicit sex, Rebecca drives off…and right into a land mine! Tiger mourns her bloody corpse for all of a few seconds and then swims back out to KRAB. He even subdues his desire to gain vengeance on the Egyptians who set the mine, as such actions would go against his orders. As in the previous book, Tiger is very much a Navy man and only does what he is ordered to do.

In fact, Tiger spends the vast majority of Ten Seconds To Zero in KRAB, piloting it around the Mediterranean and Black seas. The thing sounds for all the world like the spaceship in Barbarella, or at least that’s how I picture it, with two “contoured chairs” in front of the viewscreen and even a “small galley” with gear lockers, fridges, and etc. All it needs is a quadraphonic stereo system and shag carpeting.

There is more action this time as well, though not too much of it. First there’s a tense sequence where Tiger discovers the Sea Serpent base, and must navigate a barbed wire maze built around it, set his bombs, and fight off a Russian scuba diver before his oxygen tanks run out. There’s another neat bit where he has to cut away the submarine nets across the Bosporus, leading into the Black Sea; Stokes adds an eerie tone to this, with Tiger discovering the bloated corpse of an executed woman floating nearby.

Once in the Black Sea Tiger’s second mission (after the destruction of the Sea Serpent) is the rescue of Nadine Basiloff, young and beautiful wife of the old man who invented the missile system, Gregor Basiloff. The man wants to defect to the West, but will only do so if his wife comes along; meanwhile, the Russians have separated the couple, keeping Nadine for the past two years as a captive in a lush villa off of the Black Sea.

In the latter half of the novel Stokes suddenly thinks he’s writing a Gothic, with lots of descriptions of the hauntedly beautiful island prison of Nadine Basiloff, and her certainty that the sadistic Soviet commander who oversees the place has decided to rape her. And the man does, demanding Nadine attend dinner with him that evening while the rest of the island staff has been called away. Conveniently, he attempts to rape Nadine just as black-garbed commandos raid the villa, CIA-hired mercenaries who have been briefed by Commander Tom Greene, Tiger’s main contact and another character from the first volume, though with much less “screen time” this novel.

Stokes adds some arbitrary but weird details here, like the fact that Tiger, when he swims out of KRAB to the villa to get Nadine, is greased up to aid his swimming and is wearing nothing but a jock strap! He also has Nadine, rescued right after the sadist began stripping off her clothes, in nothing but a girdle and stocking garters. Believe it or not, Stokes does not write the expected sex scene between Tiger and Nadine, but he lets you know in the final paragraph of the novel that it’s about to happen, and soon.

The finale is a bit underwhelming, though very tense for Tiger and Nadine. In an overlong sequence we have President Nixon and Admiral Coffin on a line to Moscow, with Nixon bluffing the Russians into thinking the US has a top-secret nuclear sub which is now in the Black Sea and will strike Moscow if the Sea Serpents are not destroyed. Of course there is no sub, only a high-tech device Tiger uses to augment KRAB, which will make it appear like a massive nuclear vessel to the Russian scanning devices. 

The title comes into play because the President has given Russia one hour to accede to his demands, and while they dither in Moscow Tiger’s busy sweating it out in KRAB, racing around the ocean floor and evading various Russian ships that are looking for him. Nadine is there, too, panicking on one of those “contour chairs” and now dressed in one of Tiger’s sweaters. It isn’t until ten seconds before the hour’s end that Moscow agrees to the demands, leaving Tiger and Nadine to celebrate being alive in their own adulterous way in KRAB. (No worries about old Basiloff getting upset, as Stokes often informs us that he and his wife are not intimate in the least.)

So while there isn’t much violence or sex, and what little we do get isn’t very explicit or graphic at all – and while the pages are padded out a bit too much – Ten Seconds To Zero is still pretty enjoyable, and definitely better than its predecessor. It’s not the greatest men’s adventure novel ever written, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from Manning Lee Stokes, and your enjoyment of his ponderous style will determine whether or not you’re entertained by this second installment of The Aquanauts.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mission: Impossible (aka Mission: Impossible #1)

Mission: Impossible, by John Tiger
No month stated, 1967  Popular Library

Mission: Impossible ran for seven seasons, but for some reason there were only four tie-in novels published. Luckily, these novels were original stories, not just novelizations of episodes, and if this first one is any indication, the short-lived series is well worth checking out. But then, this first volume was written by Walter Wager, and the only other installment he wrote was the fourth one.

Last year I started watching the show, something I’d meant to do since I was a kid, and I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it, particularly the sixth and seventh seasons, when the Impossible Missions Force went up against “the Syndicate,” ie the mob. These episodes were like ‘70s crime movies, with sometimes-campy plots, awesome ‘70s fashions, and superb “urban funk” soundtracks, usually courtesy Lalo Schifrin, who also wrote the theme song. Most fans though prefer the second and third seasons, where the IMF would go into fictional ComBlock countries and take on spies and whatnot.

This first novel is interesting because it predates even those seasons – it ties in with the first season of Mission: Impossible, when Dan Briggs (played by Steven Hill) was the IMF chief, rather than the more-familiar Jim Phelps (ie Peter Graves, the actor most people think of when they think of the show). Phelps didn’t come onto the scene until the second season, and like most others I much prefer him to Briggs, who came off as very cold and, well, bland in his episodes. (I’ve read this was the actor’s intention, to portray what a real spy might be like, but still – it makes for a boring character.)

Wager spices up Briggs’s character so that he’s more in tune with the common idea of what an action hero should be like. Wager was a prolific writer, working in men's adventure magazines as well as writing novels under a variety of house names, and thus he certainly knows how to quickly dole out an entertaining story with a toughguy leading protagonist. Prose-wise his style reminds me a little of Manning Lee Stokes, only less stuffy, but you can tell the guy cut his teeth in the pulps, as he’s all about the single-sentence paragraph and ending his chapters on (sometimes lame) cliffhangers.

More importantly, he appears to have been a fan of the show, or at least to have watched it – I haven’t read many TV tie-ins, but it’s my understanding that a lot of them were cranked out by contract writers who were usually unfamiliar with the series and characters they were writing about. Wager has the feel of the show so down pat that you can almost hear the Schifrin soundtrack in many scenes; Mission: Impossible would’ve made for a fine episode of the series.

The novel begins just as an episode would, with Briggs visiting some random place, exchanging a code phrase with a contact, and then getting the infamous taped message which gives him his mission. (Unlike the familiar “This tape will self-destruct” of later seasons, in the earliest episodes Briggs had to destroy the tapes himself.) The mission this time is for the IMF to venture to the fictional Latin American country of Santilla, where two former Nazis currently reside – Kurt Dersh and Fritz Messelman.

Dersh was a concentraction camp doctor and performed horrifying experiments on his prisoners; his latest project, funded by the corrupt military junta that rules Santilla, is the creation of Dexon-9, a nerve gas that destroys a person’s mind in seconds. He has been placed in a highly-secure compound on Lake Chiriqui, outside Santilla’s capital city of Isidro, where he is protected by a garrison of soldiers, machine gun nests, and water mines around the shore. The lake itself is infested by piranha.

Messelman was an SS sadist and works as the liason with the rulers of Santila – we’re informed that Dersh, despite his cruelty, is a jolly sort of imbecile who has no understanding of how harmful his experiments are to “lesser races.” The government of Santilla, in the person of General Lorca, intends to use Dexon-9 to take out first Venezuela and later, who knows, maybe the world. There are also fears that they could sell the deadly gas to the Russians or Red Chinese.

Whereas the typical action story would have a commando team drop in and blow everyone away, Briggs and the IMF of course handle things with more finesse. Separately and in groups they head into Isidro, Briggs posing as an obnoxious Texas oilman (as if there’s any other kind), sexpot Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) posing as a jet-setting socialite, and master thespian Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), muscle-bound Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), and electronics whiz Barney Collier (Greg Morris) posing as visitors from a fictional Middle Eastern country, Rollin Hand hamming it up as “Prince Achmed,” with Willy as his turbaned guard and Barney as his aide-de-camp.

This opening “Plan A” is a lot of fun and very much in the spirit of the actual show. My only issue is “sexpot” Cinnamon, whose body and beauty is constantly played up by Wager. Personally I don’t find Barbara Bain very attractive, and I find her “honeytrap” characters in the show often hard to buy; she generally looks a good ten years older than the ingenues she poses as, and that’s no surprise, because the actress was a good ten years older. In later seasons the show cast younger actresses who had the more expected looks and curves for these “bait” sort of roles (Lesley Ann Warren in season five in particular – good grief!!). Now, Bain made up for this with her smarts, grace, and regal bearing, but Wager writes the character like she’s a 24 year-old bombshell.

But anyway, while Cinnamon capably captures ladies’ man Messelman’s attention, Briggs goes around in the guise of an oilman and hires out a helicopter to scope out the fortress on Lake Chiriqui. Rollin Hand makes waves as Prince Achmed, and the “shock and awe” portion of Plan A has Willy enduring a three-mile swim in scuba gear beneath the lake, fending off piranha and avoiding mines. When they discover the fenced perimiter is sound-rigged as well (something Briggs did not know, and thus did not plan for), they revert to Plan B, which is more of a sabotage sort of deal that, again, is really in the spirit of the show.

One difference is that Wager’s IMF is a bit more bloodthirsty. In the show their targets rarely if ever died, and hardly ever did the IMF themselves kill anyone. But in their attempt to swindle Messelman into thinking death commandos from the Israeli revenge squad Shin Bet are after him, Wager’s version of the force blows up the man’s car, killing his driver, and later cause a lot more death and destruction. The Shin Bet stuff is really great, with Messelman finding his office destroyed and vague messages in the paper which are obviously for him alone. One of the hallmarks of Mission: Impossible was the slow breaking of a villain, and Wager completely captures that here.

He also captures the fun element where the IMF members pretend to be other people due to their acting skills and “rubber masks.” Rollin Hand spends the final quarter of the novel playing General Lorca, a well-done sequence which sees him escorting Messelman into the island complex so as to “free” Dersh and plant bombs, the two Germans having been hoodwinked into believing they are, along with Lorca, about to leave Santilla for more money and freedom in “Prince Achmed’s” fictional Middle Eastern country. Here ensues the carnage mentioned above, with the climax featuring a massive explosion taking out the island – and everyone who works in the complex.

One thing Wager does not capture is that fun moment at the climax of each episode in which the IMF’s target realizes he has been had. Wager’s finale is a bit clumsy in this regard, with the IMF team, having bustled Messelman and Dersh onto a private plane, drug them up, handcuff them, and then announce to each of them that they’ve been fooled! This includes goofy stuff with Rollin Hand doffing his mask and bowing to them. It just seems a little too overly comical, given the otherwise well-handled tone of the novel.

As mentioned, Wager’s writing is very good – nice and economical, doling out just what is necessary. Only occasionally does he pad the pages with useless diversions, usually courtesy Messelman’s vitriolic opinions on this or that. As mentioned Wager has an annoying tendency toward the single-line paragraph, an obvious page-filling gambit. More unfortunately he is fond of using epithets, ie “the Oregonian” to describe Briggs, whom Wager states is from, you guessed it, Oregon. Even worse are his constant references to Barney as “the Negro.” Yes, Barney Collier was black, but this was rarely if ever mentioned in the show – as it should be, he was valued for his smarts and his skill, and his race had nothing to do with anything.

But these are minor criticisms. Mission: Impossible is a really enjoyable TV tie-in, and you wish Wager had written more than just two of them.

Monday, September 1, 2014

War Of The Gurus (The Savage Report #2)

War Of The Gurus, by Howard Rheingold
No month stated, 1974  Freeway Press

The second and final installment of The Savage Report is just as breathless and hyperbolic as the first, but this time Howard Rheingold unfortunately tells more than he shows, with the cumulative effect of rendering the reader insensate from the constant barrage of “futurespeak” words, phrases, and worldbuilding.

Picking up four months after the first volume, War Of The Gurus feels like it takes place years later – Rheingold as usual is very prescient in how quickly events will move in the future. Once again, his 1994 comes off like a hyper-accelerated 1974, and one thing the series has going for it is that it shows what future might have ensued if the hippies of the ‘70s had remained tuned in and had not become soulless capitalist yuppies in the ‘80s.

Anyway, Jack Anderson, main protagonist of the previous book, has been living in seclusion on an island bought for him by his boss, media sensation Eve Savage. Anderson quit after the events of the preceding volume, and you know you’re in trouble when within the first few pages the hero is going on about how much he hates being a spy and getting in danger and etc. But soon enough a completely-nude (well, other than a pair of boots) Smoky Kennedy parachutes onto Jack’s island and, after a full night of undescribed adult shenanigans, tells him she needs his help.

Smoky barely had much narrative space in the previous volume, but in this one she’s the star of the show, with Jack relegated to a supporting role and Eve Savage hardly in the novel at all. This makes me suspect that Eve would’ve starred in the third volume, had there been one. Smoky comes off like a female version of Jack, really, a well-seasoned spy who kicks all kinds of ass. This installment plays up more on her smarts, particularly with her gift for computer programming.

The plot, such as it is, is very convoluted this time out. First we have TRIGGER, which is like a ‘70s concept of the internet, a global computer interface that will allow people to vote for political candidates and also send in their opinions on whatever matters. This system is about to be incorporated, to much debate, especially given the recent allegations that TRIGGER might work both ways – ie, users might be unwittingly brainwashed by whatever the person on the other end is sending them.

Then there’s the Seven Elders who worship the Ha-Marani, “boy god” figurehead of a global cult of inward voyagers; they’ve been clashing with the New World Organ, a consortium of computer geeks who claim they are not a religion but that computers can be used to gain salvation, or something. Eve Savage, in her worldwide-watched Savage Report, lights the fuse between these two competing cults, with an actual religious war threatening to break out.

Smoky has apparently gotten herself in deep somehow, and has also quit working for Eve so as to go fully undercover, or something. Honestly my friends, this book is written in such a dizzying rush of “let me describe this and that in hyper-English” that the reader quickly becomes lost. This was the last volume, but the back cover still hypes The Savage Report as a “monthly” series; I’m betting it ended because Rheingold couldn’t keep it up. Seriously, there’s no way an author could write like this on a monthly basis:

Seventeen brands of demonic fury besieged Savage Communications while Eve sat and stared at the impending scenario of carnage; incoming calls lit-up her comboard while she merged with the billionfold audience watching Marshall Law grab the spotlight and lift his bloody truncheon to the skull of the world. The naked face of political sadism had a sweet paralyzing thanatophilic attraction mingled with bestial hatred and stinking fear. It was hard to tear her attention from that image, but Eve Savage was distracted by one small flashing blue light on that christmas-tree comboard. The signal drew her from Marshall Law and the Anaheim horror show; right now, the only person in the wide wobbling world that Eve wanted to talk with was an enigmatic and ominously silent young woman named Kennedy.

Imagine reading something like that on every page, for 200+ pages. What’s most unfortunate is that the story itself is lost in the barrage of newfangled words and “check this out!” navel-gazing. If you thought Grant Morrison was annoying, you should read Howard Rheingold’s work in The Savage Report. Like Morrison, he has a tendency to constantly remind the reader how cool and trendsetting he is, not to mention how in touch he is with the changing forces of the future.

Well anyway, Smoky successfully talks Jack into going undercover with her – he poses as someone into the New World Organ and she goes undercover as a “neophyte priestess” (aka “groupie priestess”) with the followers of Ha-Marani. But shortly thereafter Smoky is abducted by the Entropid Order, who Illuminatus! style go around in a massive submarine, subverting authority. Here on the opulent ship she gets real friendly real quick with Maxwell Damion, one of the captains of the sub, Worldbringer.

After a psychedelic brainwash session with ComCent, the computer software that trains other computer software and is apparently behind the Entropids, Smoky deduces that E. Luther Worldbringer, their leader, is in fact a hologram and upon defeating the computer she is hailed as the new leader of the Entropids. Meanwhile Jack Anderson totally blows his cover when he discovers Smoky is missing, just outright taking off from a woman, Shiva von Toten, who is supposed to be his “in” with the NWO.

Gradually, amid more breathless futurespeak and occasional cutovers to Eve Savage, sometimes meeting with her “tripletrank moodchanger”-inhaling boss, tycoon Lance Wilmott, the plot unfolds and the “surprise” villain is revealed – none other than Dok Tek, returning from the previous volume. That Tek is the villain is spoiled by the back cover, which clearly states he has returned to cause more misfortune, even though he doesn’t show up until nearly the end of the novel itself, and his reveal is intended as a surprise.

Another thing missing this volume is the heated relationship between Jack and Eve Savage, not to mention the liberal approach to drugs of the first volume. Jack does pop some “neurostims” in the final pages, though, amping him up to take on gigantic clones of Dok Tek. This finale by the way takes place in the high-tech underworld beneath New Jersey; we’re informed that the state itself is now a massive computer center. (Also Denver has been destroyed by some plague, and now people there live in the Logan's Run style “Denver Dome.”)

But it all just becomes mired in so much technobabble and New Age mumbo-jumbo. Even the sporadic action that livened up the previous book is gone. As mentioned though, Rheingold certainly knew at least one direction the future was pointing; for example, he adds “cyber” to a bunch of words, though unfortunately none of them are “punk.” But he clearly foresees how central computers and entertainment are going to be to the world of the future.

War Of The Gurus is ultimately wearying, not to mention confusing, but one has to at least appreciate the author’s enthusiasm. It clearly seems to be a finale for the series itself, despite the back cover’s promise of a monthly series, with Jack and Smoky faking their deaths – even Eve believes they’re really dead – and taking off together for a life out of the limelight. Given that no future volumes were ever published, one must assume that is where they remained.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Deadlier Than The Male (Jana Blake #1)

Deadlier Than The Male, by Jim Conaway
No month stated, 1977  Belmont-Tower Books

J.C. Conaway returns as “Jim” for the first of a two-volume series that comes off like a female-fronted equivalent of Conaway’s earlier Shannon series. Our hero is Jana Blake, a hotstuff blonde (despite the brunette on the cover – and Jana doesn’t wear a trenchcoat or carry a gun, by the way) who lives in Greenwich Village and works as a private investigator who only helps women.

An “ardent feminist who likes men,” per the back cover copy, Jana is apparently new to the world of private investigation, and is waiting for her big case. She lives on the second floor of a Greenwich flophouse, the first floor of which is a leather and chains store that caters to gays, with a gym across the hall from Jana’s apartment and a porn film production company on the third floor! And Jana’s constantly afraid her landlord will discover that she’s actually living here, with a Murphy bed hidden in one of the walls – her lease only calls for her to office out of the room, not live in it fulltime.

Deadlier Than The Male takes place during a very hot New York summer, and opens with the first of a few lurid murders, as a good-looking woman, dressed as a nun, stalks some random middle-age guy from the subway and murders him, unseen by anyone, in the entrance of his swank penthouse. Then she chops off his head and takes it with her, leaving no fingerprints. The woman is of course the novel’s villain, a complete basketcase with one of the most miserable childhoods I’ve ever read in a trash novel.

Interestingly, her first victim is very much like Patrick Shannon himself – we read that he lived in a “sensuous” type of pad with a mirrored ceiling in his opulent bedroom, and was known for courting many ladies. The second murder is even more along the swank lines, as the lady makes her kill in a disco club called Narcissus, and Conaway really goes to town describing the garish, swanky place, with lucite furniture, glowing lights, an entrance that is designed to look like female genitalia, and private “conversation rooms” on the upper floor where couples can go to “talk.”

Once again our villain murders a middle-aged guy who is popular with the ladies, coming on to him and then following him into the restroom – he’s sick from too many drinks – and chopping off his head. A later murder sees her further playing up on her apparent sex appeal, calling up another middle-aged guy and talking her way up into his bedroom, where she has him strip down…and then chops off his head. Like the other two, she makes off with the guy’s head.

The cops are baffled, and Gil Lanahan, the detective working the case, insists they’re all random murders. Jana, following the case in the papers, suspects otherwise. When she’s hired by the mother of the first murdered victim, she promptly follows her hunch and researches the man’s background. This leads her to a private college on Staten Island which the guy attended twenty years before, in 1956 – and Jana soon discovers that the other two victims attended there at the same time, and that they were all friends.

Her alarm bells are set off by the creepy old “house mother” who oversees the fraternity house the three men once lived in; the lady first professes not to remember them, but as she goes on she starts to say the three were like “sons” to her. Jana also notices a photo with the three victims, taken in 1956, with their arms around two other guys – surely, if the murders are connected, these two will be next on the list.

Meanwhile Jana’s busy getting laid by her studly Italian boyfriend (who runs a fruit stand across the street from her apartment!) and, of course, by Detective Lanahan. Conaway serves up some explicit sequences here, but rarely does he write them from Jana’s perspective, as per usual he POV-hops throughout the novel. And also as per usual he maintains a lurid, sleazy vibe through the novel, often cutting over to the nameless murderer's viewpoint while she’s pleasuring herself.

Conaway also must’ve had a thing for off-Broadway plays, as each novel I’ve yet read by him has either featured theater actors or the protagonists going to a play. This time Jana and her gay best friend go to see a “rock musical” based on Oedipus Rex titled “Mother Fucker” (later changed to “Mother Lover”) which turns out to be performed mostly by transvestites. Conaway doesn’t provide a long sequence detailing the play, like he did in Shannon #3, but it’s certainly memorable enough, and also a lyric in one of the songs gives Jana the idea that whatever is causing these present murders had its beginnings in the past.

Gradually we learn that our nameless murderer was, as a sixteen year-old, raped by these five college boys, all of whom were spoiled, troublemaking offspring of millionaires. We also learn her sad backstory, how her mother (whose surprise reveal is easily seen coming) completely ignored her, and even used her horrible raping as a way to get some money for herself. Jana deduces all of this from basically looking at photos and asking questions; there are no wild shootouts or in fact any action scenes in the entire novel.

So then Deadlier Than The Male is about on par with everything else I’ve read by J.C. Conaway, with a definite sleaze factor at play and a goofy feeling to the entire proceedings. However Jana is more likable than Patrick Shannon, a good-natured bombshell who wants to make her mark as a private investigator. She only had one more shot at it, though, with the second volume, They Do It With Mirrors, being the last one in the series.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Operation Hang Ten #3: Deadly Group Down Under

Operation Hang Ten #3: Deadly Group Down Under, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

Possibly one of the most overpriced men’s adventure series on the market, with some volumes listed online at vomit-inducing prices, Operation Hang Ten is also one of the more unusual, so far as series concepts go, with its hero a 23 year-old surfer who works as a spy. Yet another paperback series copyright packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, Operation Hang Ten was never picked up by another publishing company when Macfadden Books went out of business, which may explain why the books are now so scarce and expensive.

But then, if this third volume is any indication, there may be a good reason why the series was never picked up – namely, our “hero” is an asshole of the first order, outranking even Tracker – yes, outranking even Tracker!! Bill Cartwright is a misogynist, cynical, chauvinist, arrogant, obnoxious dickhead, affronting everyone and anyone for no reason whatsoever, including ultimately the reader. He is also absolutely nothing like you’d expect the hero of a series titled “Operation Hang Ten” to be.

Marty McKee well summed up Cartwright in his review of the 8th volume: “For a counterculture hero, Cartwright doesn't seem to care much for the counterculture, and his attitude towards women belongs to a man at least twenty years older and a decade earlier.” Beyond that, Bill Cartwright is much too cynical and all-knowing for a 23 year-old surf bum, with a caustic opinion on everything. I mean people, imagine John Updike as a surfer spy and you’d be close to the bizarre, off-putting feel of this series.

I’ve mentioned before how I detest online reviews that mock older books for their “outdated” sentiments and etc, so I realize I’m coming off as hypocritical, but honest to god, I’m not exaggerating here. Bill Cartwright has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He hates everyone and everything, especially women, and throughout the novel he acts abrasively to anyone he meets. As a spy he’s a waste, and so far as his “cover” as a private investigator goes, he sucks at that, too. Now as for surfing, as far as he’s concerned he’s the best there is.

Anyway. Deadly Group Down Under has Cartwright (or “Bill,” as he’s referred to in the narrative itself) tasked with infiltrating the circle which surrounds an up-and-coming young starlet named Lisa Dane, an Australian with “cotton candy” dyed white hair who both sings and acts. For some convoluted reason never made clear she has been dubbed “Queen of the Surfers,” even though she’s never surfed. To Bill though she’s a “phoney” through and through, and by god don’t think he won’t tell her that.

We open with Bill going about his task in his own assholic way, competing in a surf competition at a party near Lisa Dane’s rented beach house in Santa Monica; the winner gets a black opal and a kiss from Lisa. Bill wins, of course, but then takes the opal, drops it down the front of her dress, and struts arrogantly off. When later he’s threatened by Lisa’s manager, Lance Mikesell, and the man’s security guard, Dingo Lon, Bill tells them to screw off, enjoying a scotch and soda – the preferred drink of every 23 year-old surfer in 1970, of course. 

As Bill expected, Lisa Dane falls for it, coming to check out this mysterious man who spurned her. Bill ends up taking her back to his trailer, which is one of the few interesting touches of the series – it’s equipped with a “scanner” that alerts Bill when anyone comes close to it, and also has a computer that makes him his drinks. I lost count of the number of times I read how Cartwright “dialed up a scotch and soda.” After treating Lisa like shit some more, Bill of course scores with her, though the details are kept vague; this is another of those series where we cut to black when the dirty stuff begins.

Oh yeah, Bill’s supposed to infiltrate the group because someone in Lisa’s circle is taking photos of US military institutions around the world and selling them to the Chinese! But he’s more concerned that the girl is using him as a way to validate her “Queen of the Surfers” status, and he doesn’t like that at all. Oh, and he’s even more pissed that his boss Jim Dana has graced him with an untried young female partner named Lulu, who’s posing as one of the beach bum girls in Lisa’s orbit.

Bill’s vitriol for Lulu is almost as rampant as it is for Lisa Dane. He doesn’t get much chance to unleash it on a third female he’s been “saddled” with, Sharon Ryan, who currently works as Lisa Dane’s assistant but ends up dead when the group comes back from Switzerland to Australia, Bill going there himself to hook up with Lisa on Bondi Beach. Throughout the novel Bill and Lulu trade banter, but it isn’t fun banter, with Bill constantly telling her she’s an idiot and needs to quit because women shouldn’t be working as spies. For example:

Bill closed his eyes. He felt his jaws ache from gritting his teeth. Where was Lulu? Right there was the jolt he needed. A woman’s place was in the oven. Girls belonged at home, barefoot and pregnant, their lives should revolve around some man. This was not work for them. They were created for the care and pleasure of man.

That’s an actual quote from the novel, and it’s a glimpse of the mindset the reader is forced to endure for about 170 pages of smallish print. (Also, one has to wonder what the hell “A woman’s place was in the oven” is supposed to mean – surely he means kitchen??) Of course, none of this stops ol’ Bill from constantly trying to get in Lulu’s bikini trunks. To her credit she constantly stops him, saying she doesn’t want to become yet another of Bill Cartwright’s untold conquests.

Our hero doesn’t just piss off the women, though. Throughout the novel he rushes from one confrontation to another – confrontations he himself starts. For example when attempting to get information from Lisa Dane’s tour photographer, he busts into the poor guy’s place, threatens him, makes fun of him for practically worshipping Lisa, what with all the photos of her hanging about, and then storms out, later coming back to punch the guy a few times! When Lance Mikesell and Lingo Don, despite being the obvious villains of the story (there are like six characters in the entire novel), try to make peace with Bill, he tells them to fuck off. 

On and on it goes, but I started to suspect that maybe here we have another instance of the Ryker effect, ie where our “hero” is not intended to be seen as a hero. Throughout the novel other characters constantly call Cartwright out for being a jerk. Unlike Ryker though his plans usually work out perfectly and he seems to know exactly what’s going on all the time. So who knows, maybe the author means it all to be taken in earnest, and Bill Cartwright is not intended to be seen as a parody of the genre. But as mentioned earlier, he sucks at his job; his “deductive skills” amount to breaking and entering and snooping around. Then he goes back to his trailer and “dials up a scotch and soda.”

As for action, there are only a few fights here, all of them hand-to-hand. A pair of would-be murderers break into Bill’s trailer on Bondi Beach, and he fights them off in a savage brawl, getting some help from an apparently-recurring character, John Fast Black Washington, a black surfer who by the way is black (per ‘70s pulp demands, we are constantly reminded of this). In between bloody fights, these two like to trade world-weary, cynical banter, despite being in their early 20s.

Writing wise the novel’s not bad, so far as the word-spinning goes. But it’s very much in Bill’s perspective (the novel feels like it’s in first-person even though it isn’t), constantly going on and on about his strong opinions on this or that. We also get large blocks devoted to his misogynist philosophy. As I’ve written before, all of this is fine in small doses, I mean the one thing I want from this genre is over-the-top stuff, but at the same time, good grief is it annoying.

Beyond the skill of the prose itself, the plot kind of sucks. As mentioned there are only a few people in the novel, so any “mystery” of who the culprits are is quickly seen through. One also suspects the author had a hard time living up to the no-doubt Engel-created concept of the series, of a “hip” young surfer who is a spy; Bill Cartwright is less hip than Nick Carter. Finally, at least so far as this particular volume goes, the series really lacks in the action and sex category, with too much introspection (and arrogant bluster) getting in the way.

So who was Patrick Morgan? It was really an author named George Snyder, who takes credit for the entire series on his blog. As mentioned above, Operation Hang Ten is not an easy series to get hold of. Last December I was in an antiques store and came across three volumes of the series; sure, they were all beaten to shit and three dollars each, but I grabbed them anyway. So once I build up the stamina I’ll try to endure another one.