Thursday, April 9, 2020

Mace #7: The Year Of The Cock

Mace #7: The Year Of The Cock, by C.K. Fong
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

It’s curious that with this seventh volume of Mace Manor came up with a new house name: C.K. Fong replacing Lee Chang. I say curious because Bruce Cassiday, the writer who took over the series with this volume, clearly strives to mimic the style of Joseph Rosenberger, who served as Lee Chang for the first five volumes, whereas Len Levinson, who also served as Lee Chang in the previous volume, did his own thing. I know from Len that he never read any of the previous Mace novels, nor even knew who Joseph Rosenberger was (his succinct answer when I asked him: “I never heard of Joseph Rosenberger”), but it seems clear that Cassiday not only read Rosenberger’s Mace installments but went out of his way to replicate his style. 

All of which is to say The Year Of The Cock is ersatz Rosenberger; Cassiday successfully captures the flavor of JR’s clunky, soul-crushing narrative style, but he misses the oddball touches Rosenberger afficionados would expect. But the bland plotting, the egregious bios of one-off villains, the interminable action scenes that don’t have a single spark of excitement – all of it’s there. If I hadn’t known going in that Cassiday was Fong, I would’ve assumed it was Rosenberger on an off day. I don’t know much about Cassiday, and so far on the blog I’ve only reviewed one of his novels, the earlier psychedelic cash-in The Happening At San Remo. I have several other paperbacks of his, ranging from historicals to sleazy crime, so I assume he must’ve been pretty prolific and capable of changing his style to match the content.

In any event, Len’s novel is basically a blip and, in case there was any doubt, has nothing to do with the series itself, best judged as a standalone novel about some other half-Chinese kung fu wizard named Victor Mace. Because Cassiday gives us the same guy that Rosenberger did, a “Kung Fu Monk-Master” who works for the CIA and is capable of superhuman feats but has the personality of a thumbtack. Cassiday might give us a slightly more “human” Mace, in that this one actually has a libido (usually a much-lacking feature in a Rosenberger protagonist); there’s a part midway through where he falls for a honey trap scenario and has some (off-page) sex with a young Chinese babe. I don’t think the Rosenberger version of Mace would’ve had this experience.

It’s straight to the action and the egregious backstories for one-off opponents as we meet Mace in Galveston, Texas, where he’s busy tying himself to a motor boat that’s speeding across a dark bay. Mace we’ll learn is on his latest CIA assignment, looking into the nefarious presence of a Red Chinese cell here in Texas, one that’s led by a dude named Major Fong (who is compared to both Hitler and Frankenstein!). Curious too that “Fong” is the name of the villain as well as the name of the (fictional) author, leading me to believe that Cassiday was unaware that the house name for the series would change. But then, this opening action scene takes place at “Bruce’s Fishing Charter,” which is likely some in-jokery from Cassiday, so who knows. Oh and there’s the possibility that Fong might’ve killed Mace’s father, who we learn in brief backstory was American – it was his Chinese stepfather who sent Mace to the Shaolin school – but Cassiday basically drops this angle.

Mace quickly learns that it’s a setup, and the thugs on the boat have known he was here all along. They corner him and it goes straight into the Rosenberger-style action, with random asides detailing the goofily-named opponents Mace is about to crush. As with Rosenberger this results in a clunky, pseudo-omniscient tone, a tone Cassiday employs throughout the book:

Nick Bartolomew was next to join the surging attack on the Kung Fu Monk-Master. Armed with a twelve inch flyssa, a Moroccan sword characterized by a single-edged blade engraved and inlaid with brass, Bartolomew slid it histily[sp] from the scabbard he wore around his waist and came at Mace with a wild glare. 

“Your last breath on earth, you chink son of a bitch!” he yelled, and slid the deadly blade upward toward Mace’s groin. But the Kung Fu Tung-chi had anticipated the black-haired ex-con’s move with the blade, and countered by whirling around with a simple Korsi Tu Minga kick to the crotch. 

Shrieking in agony, Bartolomew sagged to the deck, his sexual apparatus a mass of jelly instantly radiating pain from its ruined center to every nerve ending in his body. As he fell, the ugly flyssa impaled him in the heart as he sank down face first. He twisted and tore at the deck plates with his bleeding fingernails as he slowly lost consciousness and died in the lashing rain.

Or this example:

An ex-hood named Pinky Desnoyers was the next who reacted with dispatch. An albino, he dyed his hair red to make himself presentable to his fellow man. Desnoyers went nowhwere without a snubnosed S and W .45 caliber revolver clipped to his shoulder holster.


“Make sure he’s dead!” yelled Sam Riley, known as One-Ball Riley ever since he had been partially maimed by the disgruntled husband of a floozie he had been caught with in bed one eventful evening.

One thing Cassiday actually outdoes Rosenberger on is the racial slurs. Not since the first volume has “chink,” “slant-eyes,” and sundry other racial putdowns appeared so many times in a Mace novel. Cassiday even comes up with wholly new ones, like “noodle-nibbler.” In fact there’s a long stretch where an Asian slur appears on every single page, as if Cassiday were trying to outdo himself. And it’s not just the villains coming up with the slurs, it’s everyone – cops, fellow CIA agents, etc. This opening action scene is our intro to this, as the seemingly-endless parade of thugs come up with slur after slur before Mace’s feet or fists pummel them into bloody burger. But as with Rosenberger there’s no joy in the action, and it just comes off like an interminable barrage of description from a martial arts how-to book. Cassiday does though try to retain the occasional goofy cap-offs for his action scenes, a la “The goon woke up and found himself in hell,” sort of thing you’d find in a Rosenberger Mace. Like this, from a later action scene:

The goon in the middle stormed in to deliver a Karate chop to the back of Mace’s neck. His hand connected, and Mace rolled with the punch. Immediately he recovered, forcing his muscles and his psyche to regroup in a positive chi effort. Instantly he was clear-headed and alert, backing around, wheeling slightly, and clobbering the man called Hank Grogan with a Dragon Foot snap kick in the solar plexus. The ball of the foot and the heel slammed into Grogan’s nerve centers, paralyzing him instantly and sending him crumpling to the ground. His abdominal wall collapsed and he was bleeding internally when they finally put him in the ambulance and sent him to Houston General. He recovered seven weeks later, but he was on soft foods for the rest of his life.

So as you can see, one could easily be fooled into believing this was the work of Joseph Rosenberger, and Cassiday does an admirable job of aping his unusual style. But sadly he is so successful that The Year Of The Cock (the working title of my autobio, btw) is just as boring as a legit Rosenberger book, 222 whopping pages of spirit-deadening blocks of prose and hardly any narrative momentum. There’s plentiful kung-fu fighting, though, but as with Rosenberger’s books it just comes off like dry textbook descriptions of outrageously-named moves being employed on outrageously-named thugs – thugs who spout outrageous racial slurs moments before their faces meet Mace’s feet.

The plot gradually centers around a Red Chinese plot to destroy the offshore oil rigs off the Houston coast. Mace sits through interminable meetings with his CIA comrades, the only memorable one being Benny Jaurez, the Houston chief of station. This too has the ring of Rosenberger, with the spooks sitting around in their humdrum office over cups of lukewarm coffee and trading exposition on the spy life (why a CIA ring is called a “pod,” etc). Eventually it comes to light that one of the various intelligence agents is a traitor, and there’s also an elaborate sting operation where Mace tries to out him. This bit leads to a surprise climax in which Mace, pursued by a dogged Houston cop who himself turns out to be a villain, is “rescued” by a hot young Chinese babe who pulls up in her sportscar and offers Mace a lift.

In what is as mentioned a departure from Rosenberger’s more cipher-like version of the character, this Mace actually goes back to the broad’s place and ultimately has sex with her. Her name’s Moon Chu Lingdoo, and she claims to be a string reporter for Time, currently working for the local PBS station. She says she’s “hopelessly Americanized” and there follows a lot of dialog between the two, concluding with Moon throwing herself on Mace, as she claims to be lonely. Off-page sex ensues, and Mace wakes up to discover, of course, that it was a setup – Moon is gone but some thugs have slipped into her darkened apartment to get the drop on him. Of course he kills them all and escapes without breaking much of a sweat.

In a laughable sequence Mace, again hanging out with Juarez, employs his total recall to review every single thing he glimpsed in Moon’s apartment, in particular the photo of a man on one of her tables. Mace and Juarez already know there’s a deep undercover spy for the Chinese government here in Houston, and Mace is certain this man in the photo is that undercover agent: Tom Galey, the director of programming for the Houston PBS station. I guess in 1975 it would’ve sounded crazy – maybe even impossible – that a member of the American media could be an undercover Red China asset. In 2020 it sounds downright timely. Mace of course is correct, and meanwhile Galey, who lives in a fortified compound, is busy arguing with Major Fong over how to carry out the operation on the oilwells, and also over whether or not they should kill Moon for failing in her mission. She attempts to escape, only to be raped (off-page) by a guard who captures her.

This leads to probably the “best” action scene in the book, with Mace infiltrating Galey’s compound and taking out a few guards, as well as some guard dogs with some hypodermic needles. He also manages to rescue Moon, aka the woman who nearly got him killed. Moon claims she didn’t know Mace was going to be attacked, etc, but she does give him and Juarez the info on the oilwell attack. This leads to the finale, with Mace and the CIA agents staging an assault on the PBS station, where it turns out Galey has set up a transmitter on the broadcasting tower. A signal from it and the offshore rigs will blow up. The climax is a bit gory, too, with Mace ripping out Galey’s eyes and shredding his throat, and another character performing some heroic sacrifice to both wipe out the transmitter and kill Major Fong.

And with this, thankfully, the book concludes…it’s too long, too wordy, too bland, but as I say it’s at least a successful mimicking of Joseph Rosenberger’s patented style. Only without the quirks that make the real Rosenberger’s work occasionally so memorable. Cassiday also turned in the next volume, which would prove to be the last of Mace.

Monday, April 6, 2020

CenterForce (A Reappraisal)

CenterForce, by T.A. Waters
December, 1974  Dell Books

About ten years ago I first reviewed T.A. Waters’s CenterForce, and clearly I didn’t like it very much. But Waters is the guy who wrote The Psychedelic Spy, after all, which I consider one of the best standalone novels I’ve read in the past several years, and definitely one of my favorite books I’ve ever reviewed on here. So I’ve been meaning to go back to CenterForce and give it another shot, especially now that I’ve again become interested in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, a milieu which Waters projects into the “near future” for this slim paperback original.

First though a note on the cover; as mentioned in my original review the “Roger Dean-esque” artwork is not representative of the novel. The art, which I like a lot, isn’t credited, but I’m guessing it’s by Peter Lloyd, an artist who was doing similar work at the time for rock albums, like Jefferson Starship’s Dragon Fly (1974) and Starcastle’s Fountains Of Light (1977). An airbrushed pseudo-Silver Surfer seems to have been Lloyd’s schtick, and that’s exactly what graces the cover of CenterForce. But again it has nothing to do with anything in the novel itself; the titular CenterForce patrol does have somewhat high-tech vehicles at its disposal, and we are informed that CenterForce soldiers wear “special helmets,” but none of it is described like what is shown on the cover. And if that’s supposed to be our hero, it’s really wrong, as main protagonist Ben Reed is a long-haired outlaw biker in his thirties who rides a 1971 BMW R60 motorcyle. In other words, something like this:

This is another of those obscure novels where you wish some enterprising producer had bought the rights to make a film version. AIP or some other drive-in purveyor could’ve easily made a cool movie out of it. It could’ve been done on the cheap, too, as most of CenterForce plays out in the desert or on hippie communes, and hell a skilled hand like Sutton Roley could’ve found some inventive methods of handling the occasional “science fiction” element on a shoestring budget. I’m not sure why I’m even bringing this up; I guess mostly because CenterForce very much has the vibe of an early ‘70s counterculture film, and I’m not just saying that because some of the chapters are written in screenplay format. It’s got the fractured, post-psychedelic vibe of many films of the era, like Vanishing Point or Peter Fonda’s Idaho Transfer, which had a similar storyline of hippies being hunted in a nightmarish future.

Waters doesn’t get exact with the timeframe, but we learn through various communiques, interrogation excerpts, and other materials that the novel is likely set in the 1980s; it’s post 1976, at least, for we learn that in that year New York City became the capitol of the US. One of the things I didn’t like about CenterForce when I first read it is that Waters refrains from using a standard narrative style, which is unfortunate because the setup has all the makings of a pulp classic. And it’s doubly unfortunate because Waters proved he could write a pulp classic in a standard narrative style – and damn well – in The Psychedelic Spy. But he clearly had grander aspirations for CenterForce; chapters are short and trade off between straight plot material concerning Ben Reed’s trip through the Utah desert and random communiques which are intended to elliptically fill us in on this future world. But all of it, no matter the format, is egregiously artsy, often to the detriment of forward momentum.

Worse yet, Waters’s fragmented narrative style prevents the reader from fully connecting with the characters and the plot developments. Ben Reed’s portions carry the brunt of the narrative, but we’re constantly cutting away from him to some excerpt from a StarChild Commune newsletter, or a report on some action elsewhere in the country, or even letters written by minor characters to their families back home. Also this is confusing because we don’t even learn who has written each of these letters, or where the excerpts are taken from, until the end of each chapter, so this causes reader confusion when you start each non-Ben chapter…you have no idea who is suddenly writing these first-person letters and communiques. It’s jarring and it’s something Waters should’ve realized in the editing stage: the names/origins of the pseudo-dispatchs should’ve been stated at the start of each chapter. 

But Waters’s biggest transgression is his failure to exploit his own material. There’s too much telling and too little showing. The opening promises much, though; Been Reed, on his bike in the middle of the desert late at night, has just killed a man with his Remington shotgun. We’re told that bounty hunters can legally hunt and kill hippies and bikers in this unstated future, but incredibly enough Waters does nothing further with this – you’d think the image of a bunch of slackjawed corncobs tearing around in a truck and hooting and hollering as they try to blow away a couple bikers would be too much for a writer to resist. But other than this opening action scene – which indeed begins after the action itself has occurred – we’re only told of these hippie-hunters.

At least we get a little more elaboration on the CenterForce patrols, which venture around the desert in armored buses. Ben gets in a fight with one of these directly after killing the bounty hunter, hiding in a ditch and blowing the thing up by shooting at its gas tank. But this isn’t elabroted much either, with more focus on the high-tech Big Brother methods of the CenterForce. There are prescient parallels to the drone technology of today, with mobile CenterForce command posts helmed by desk jockeys who activate heat-seeking missiles that are housed in an orbiting satellite. The entire midwest of the US has been blasted by various nukes and the like, all as part of the breakout of revolutions and civil strife after the ‘60s movement, and these CenterForce personnel monitor their screens for signs of any “home-soil hostiles,” much like military personnel of today monitoring the deserts of the Middle East on their screens for signs of terrorists.

But Waters doesn’t do much to bring the outlaw counterculture to life, either. We know they do drugs – Ben takes peyote immediately after this opening firefight, tripping as he continues his drive through the desert – and apparently they listen to rock, given the occasional “chapter” that’s composed of overly-wordy rock lyrics. But the lineage of the hippies and counterculture gurus of the ‘60s to this unstated future era is not elaborated on. In short, Waters just fails to bring his world and his characters to life, and it’s a shame because there’s a lot of opportunity for both. Instead he tries to go for more of a smallscale approach by focusing on minor characters and events, like Jill, a young runaway who now lives at the StarChild commune, in Arizona, writing letters to her mom back home. She’s underage, we know, and very small, almost childlike, which makes it pretty strange that Ben falls hard for her, late in the novel.

We readers must do the heavy lifting when it comes to piecing together the storylines; rather than a straight narrative, random things will be mentioned in one section, then referenced in another communique or letter, and lots of “big stuff” happens veritably off-page. Waters causes confusion with similar subplots; there’s young Jill at the commune, who is almost raped by a gang of bikers who show up at StarChild (she’s saved by the late arrival of their leader, Grogan, who kills the would-be rapist – one of those incidents which, unbelievably, occurs off-page), then later another young runaway girl at StarChild is indeed raped (off-page) by another group of bikers, ones who are never identified. This girl is the daughter of the former sheriff of Marble Fork, the small town outside of StarChild, and sets in motion the “climax” of the novel, where the guy tries to shoot down Ben, assuming he is the biker who raped his daughter.

Otherwise we have a minor plot about a senator working out of the “Government Building” in New York who plans an amnesty bill that will repair the country, and is assassinated immediately thereafter (by whom Waters doesn’t state). There’s also a fun piece about a hippie who is captured by CenterForce but so high on LSD that he thinks it’s all a trip. But this too leads to repetition – strange that there’s so much repetition in such a slim book – because later, we have a repeat of this “save a captured hippie” scenario. With the same guy taking part in the rescue! This is Big Tex, one of Ben’s comrades, a lanky dude who drives a Land Rover with a machine gun mounted in the back. When one of their pals is captured, Big Tex and Ben, along with biker boss Grogan, go to the rescue – a scene that could’ve been much more exploited. Waters even skips out on the chase scene, with a chapter ending with the CenterForce patrols coming after them in their armored vehicles!

The bigger story though is that Ben falls in love with Jill at first sight, but it’s hard to buy. He’s come here to StarChild assuming he’ll hook up with Trina, an old flame who is now Grogan’s mama. There’s subtextual evidence that Trina is an undercover Federal agent, or at least working with them. But again, nothing is elaborated upon or properly explained. In fact Ben gets shot by the ex-sheriff, and Waters doesn’t even bother to tell us he’s still alive until a few chapters later…just nonchalantly placing him in the scene with a cast on his arm. Ben and Jill decide to leave for Mexico, and meanwhile Jill’s pregnant; all as revealed, lamely, in another letter Jill writes her mom. And that’s it…other than a vague final chapter about a thermonuclear strike on San Francisco and Atlanta, two of the last counterculture hotspots or somesuch.

As mentioned in my original review, CenterForce is short, coming in at just 175 pages. It’s too short, that’s all – another hundred pages or so and Waters could’ve fully fleshed out his story. But then he might’ve wasted the additional pages on more communiques, rock lyrics, and poetry – I neglected to mention it in this review, but as stated in my original review there’s a lot of bullshit poetry padding the pages, poetry which turns out to have been written by a computer. Just as annoying are the screenplay sequences, randomly spliced in the narrative. If only Waters had stuck to a straight narrative, as he did in The Psychedelic Spy, he might’ve had another pulp masterpiece on his hands. Unfortunately, a la Captain America in Easy Rider, “He blew it.”

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #2: The Game Of Terror

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #2: The Game Of Terror, by Jon Messmann
June, 1973  Pyramid Books

Well, it’s been four years since I read the first volume of Jefferson Boone, Handyman, and really I meant to get to the series sooner, but given that I was also reading The Revenger I guess I just didn’t want to mix my Messmanns, so to speak. Because really both series are written so similarly, Messmann going for this pseudo-Burt Hirschfeld style, with overly-introspective heroes and plots that hinge more on suspense than violent action. What makes Jefferson Boone, Handyman slightly different is the James Bond vibe, with “Jeff” (as Messmann mostly refers to him in the narrative) going around the globe in the capacity of a freelance troubleshooter.

This one’s a little more action-centric than the first one, but not by much. This is mostly due to the threat Boone faces: a consortium of terrorists who have come up with the novel idea of blackmailing the people they’re about to attack. “Terror for profit,” as Jeff thinks of it. Again we get a sad reminder of how terrorism wasn’t so commonplace at one time; early in the book, when hired by a trio of British, German, and Israeli intelligence directors, Jeff sits through a lecture – complete with slideshow! – going over the history of the terrorism movement, with a focus on the then-recent Munich Olympics disaster. Obviously this long-running sequence is here to fill pages and meet the word count, yet at the same time Messmann’s cleary trying to inform his readers on who terrorists are and how they operate.

Before that though we get a taste of the sub-Hirschfeld vibe Messmann employs for this series; Jeff is at a lush spa in Austria, summoned there by a mysterious telegram. He has been getting friendly with a hot American tourist named Judy, but there’s been no hanky panky yet. All of it is written like a trash fiction paperback of the day. Finally we get the blood and guts we’ve been waiting for when a visiting orchestra turns out to be a bunch of terrorists in disguise, gunning down innocent spa-goers. Jeff gives chase in his red Mustang – which he transports around the globe with him on cases, so the thing must have a helluva lot of miles on it – leading to a nicely-done action scene of him blowing away the two terrorists with his .357. After which we get a reminder of why I called Jefferson Boone “Frasier Crane meets James Bond” in my review of the first volume, as Jeff rumintes, immediately after blowing away the two thugs:

Senseless things were only senseless to those restricted by the normal, conventional framework of thought. It was one of modern man’s problems, the language of ideas and the language of words, too often an uneasy fit. Words, he grunted, willing accomplices to the deceits of the mind, more often than not protecting the rigidities of our own concepts and definitions.

I mean you ponder thoughts like this over a snifter of brandy, not when you’re driving away from a violent gunfight in your red Mustang. It gets even more goofy, as Judy pouts that Jeff abandoned her, basically calling him out as a coward. Once she overhears the management discuss “the crazy American who chased the terrorists,” her thoughts have changed – and into Jeff’s bed she hops for some long-delayed sex. But like last time Messmann continues with the Hirschfeld vibe even into the sex scenes, relaying it all via metaphor and turns of phrase, save for errant mentions of “the warm wetness of her” and the like. Oh and humorously, the ladies here all fall hard for Jeff’s custom-made “Handyman” business cards, immediately figuring it has something to do with international espionage. Not a single one of them think that it means he’s an actual, you know, handyman.

The men who summoned Jeff to the spa finally arrive, apologizing for the slipup on dates – they wanted to prevent the terrorist hit at the spa, which they’d gotten intel on, but it happened sooner than they could arrive. These are the three intelligence directors mentioned above, who treat Jeff to the slideshow while they relate the latest terrorism menace. They believe it’s affiliated with Black September, but Jeff will gradually learn that the terrorists are from all over the globe, running into Japanese ones, Irish ones, and your standard-model Arabic ones. Jeff doesn’t want the job, as he doesn’t “do” terrorism, so to speak, finding it too big a job for one man. But he keeps flashing on that attack at the spa, the innocents killed, and he changes his mind – and by the way there are lots of condemnations of terrorists in the book, but Jeff’s admonishments of them as “dirty bastards” and the like just doesn’t have much bite.

There are parallels to the Stark series this time, what with Jeff shuttling around Europe in his Mustang. The guy puts some serious mileage on the car. He acts in the capacity of a freelance terrorism-stopper, or such; the only lead the directors have is that a travel company owner named Jim Costa, an expat American on the French coast, might be a target of the terrorists, given that he ignored one of their threats. So Jeff drives on over and we get another Hirschfeld bit where he comes across a beautiful brunette trying to save her boat from being smashed at the docks during a fierce thunderstorm. They have a quiet moment in the nearby cabin and bat eyes at each other, and next day Jeff discovers that the babe is the daughter of Jim Costa. Her name is Angelique, and Messmann skillfully brings her to life, but he’s guilty of that hoary old cliché; she could be The One who captures Jefferson Boone’s heart after all these years of unshackled cocksmanship.

Speaking of which, the expected sex scene is slightly more risque, but again on the “intellectual” tip, with mentions of “curled flocces” and the like; I admit, that one sent me to the dictonary. Meanwhile Jeff just sort of walks around Costa’s premises to make sure no terrorists are attacking him. He also finds the time to have friendly philosophical arguments on the nature of terrorists with Costa’s Egyptian second in command, Aran. You’d think that an Egyptian guy arguing over the viewpoints of terrorism might set off alarm bells for Jeff, but nope. Instead we get more ruminations like:

The idea [of organized terrorism] assumed too much. It assumed the simultaneous existence of a single idea on the part of essentially diverse groups, the existence of a concept, a sick, perverted, horrifying concept but a concept nonetheless and he didn’t see these [terrorists] as conceptual thinkers. It couldn’t be entirely discounted but it didn’t fit, either…

Good grief, just kill someone already! We do eventually get a nicely-rendered sequence where Jeff’s called to another part of the French coast where a potential attack might happen. He oversees security of the beachside party, unable to find any weak spots…realizing too late he’s completely overlooked the friggin’ ocean. And like a second after his realization a retrofitted PT boat comes along and starts shooting at the partiers. Jeff again gives chase in his Mustang, following along the hilly roads with his lights off, and gets the terrorists when they’ve stopped to refuel. Again we have a rather bloodless but suspenseful scene as Jeff kills a handful of men with his .38. This part features the odd capoff where Jeff apparently considers taking a piss on the corpses:

He reached a hand inside the little pocket at the front of his trousers, held it there for a moment and then withdrew it. No one would come for them. They would lay unclaimed, all of them, and the gesture that had crossed his mind would be wasted.

Oddball moments like this are otherwise few and far between. For the most part it’s very much on the trash fiction tip, with verdant description of the Eurotrash surroundings, and lots of ponderings about the nature of terrorism and the like. But Jeff isn’t the sharpest, folks, because it soon becomes clear to the reader exactly why no one’s yet come to kill Jim Costa. Yet Jeff continues with his security detail, falling hard for Angelique on the side. What makes it all particularly lame is that Jeff has nothing to do with the finale, by which I mean he isn’t on the scene. Long story short, the terrorists take over a school in Bonn, threatening to kill the kids if demands aren’t met. But our hero’s all the way over on the French coast and all this is relayed via phone – a lame, copout “climax” for an action novel. 

Instead it continues on the suspense angle, as Jeff has finally figured out who is behind the terrorist ring. He ends up holding a gun on this person, but when his threats are laughed at, Jeff leaves with his tail between his legs…then realizes two can play at the terrorism game. In what is intended to display that Jefferson Boone’s just as tough as his enemies, Jeff kidnaps Angelique and threatens to kill her if the terrorism in Bonn isn’t called off. This leads to a lame denoument in which the main villain’s killed off by someone else, and Jeff gets in a brief fight with his underling. By novel’s end Angelique informs Jeff that he’s just as much a bastard as the terrorists he claims to hate – we’re to understand the two were in love, so this is supposed to be crushing, but at this point the novel has become a wearying read and you just wish everyone would go away, already – but Jeff shrugs it off and hops on a plane. Next stop America, for some more sex with Judy, from the opening chapters.

The Game Of Terror just sort of goes on and on, and in that regard as well it’s similar to Stark. I still say the Revenger books are superior because they’re at least shorter, but ultimately Messmann’s wordy, literate style is at odds with the fire and brimstone the men’s adventure genre demands. And I’m starting to think he didn’t write the almighty Sea Trap; maybe he did the initial manuscript and series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel hired some unknown contract writer to fix it up into the pulpy, depraved masterpiece it became – because honestly I have a hard time believing that the same author turned out this slow-churning book.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Bad Guy

Bad Guy, by Nicholas Brady
No month stated, 1977  Belmont Tower

“Nicholas Brady” was a Belmont Tower/Leisure Books house name used by a variety of contract writers; Len Levinson served as “Brady” for Inside Job. Bad Guy isn’t by Len, though, and although the identity of the author has never been officially confirmed I’m fairly certain it was George Harmon Smith. Thanks to the trailblazing research of Lynn Munroe we know that Harmon Smith was a contract writer often used by BT/Leisure editor Peter McCurtin, and the narrative style of Bad Guy is identical to those installments of Marksman and Sharpshooter (ie This Animal Must DieSavage Slaughter) that Lynn has designated as being by George Harmon Smith: literary but very overwritten.

To wit, Bad Guy opens with some weatherbeaten redneck deputy in Georgia, maintaining law and order at a stock car race, and as with those other Smith books it just goes and on and with the pointless detailing of every single thing the hayseed does. I mean the writing’s good and all, it’s just flabby, and the author clearly doesn’t know when some judicious editing is necessary. That being said, this opening does feature the oddball moment of the deputy shoving some guy’s face into a pile of shit; this sort of random nastiness is another George Harmon Smith hallmark, as evidenced by his other books, and I’m even more certain he might’ve been the mystery author who wrote Bronson: Blind Rage – which by the way is still one of my very favorite novels I’ve ever reviewed on here.

As Zwolf so succinctly put it, Bad Guy is a “Grade-B sleazy crime novel,” clearly catering to the spate of Southern action films going on at the time; you could easily see Burt Reynolds (or Joe Don Baker if you don’t have the budget) as protagonist Jake Colby, shit-kicking stock car racer and former Syndicate stringer. Actually he has a much darker side than any Reynolds character; the BT house ads claim Jake Colby is “in the tradition of Gator McCloskey [sp],” ie the “hillbilly hoodlum” Reynolds portrayed in White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976). But he’s a stone-cold killer with a sadistic streak. Harmon Smith (I’m just going to proceed with the theory that the novel truly is by him) implies that Colby’s casual mercilessness is due to his wife and toddler son being killed in a car bomb six years before, a car bomb that was meant for Colby. But damn, that’s not nearly enough to explain away some of the sadistic stuff he does in this novel.

To tell the truth, the hicksploitation stuff really isn’t much exploited nor integral to the plot. There are no “Southern” quirks to Colby and he comes off no different than any other Belmont Tower anti-hero. The action mostly occurs in Georgia, the Bayou, and Vegas, but other than a couple Creole characters there’s no real attempt at making this a Dixie-fried actioner. The opening sequence is the closest approximation to this, with an overly-detailed stock race in Georgia serving as our introduction to Colby. This will be the only stock car race in the book, but it displays the same style Harmon Smith brings to the rest of the novel: inordinate scene-setting and word-painting, but with very good characterization and dialog. Seriously, the guy was like the John Gardner of BT/Leisure (I mean the John Gardner of Michelsons Ghosts, not the British John Gardner who took over the James Bond books in the ‘80s).

Before we get into the meat of the review, I’d like to clarify that I really did enjoy Bad Guy. It’s certainly more entertaining and better written than the majority of the blockbuster crime novels of the ‘70s, or at least ones that were published in hardcover and received industry reviews. I mean it’s a lot more enjoyable than The Devalino CaperThe Anderson Tapes, or Golden Gate Caper. The main characters are three-dimensional and there are memorable oddball touches to most of the minor characters that you remember long after you’ve finished the book. It’s just that the damn overwriting sinks it; the Gardner comparison again comes to mind. Anyone who has read (or tried to read) Nickel Mountain or The Sunlight Dialogs will know what I’m talking about; just an insurmountable barrage of needless topical description. Each and every chapter begins with elaborate scene-setting, and every menial gesture or action of the characters is stated; Colby smokes about a bujillion cigarettes in the novel, and we’re told every single time he tosses aside a butt and lights a fresh one. This makes the book seem like a slog at times, because it gears up to be so great, then stalls with unecessary bouts of page-filling. 

Anyway when we meet Jake Colby he’s a stock car racer in the south, a mostly-broken guy who is ready to blow into violent action at any moment. He’s approached by two hoods, Scalise and Blaustein, who claim to be representatives for Peaches Angella, Colby’s old boss in the Syndicate. Gradually we’ll learn that part of Peaches’s portfolio was heroin, which Colby ran for him. Then some interloper named Gazzara came onto the scene and started taking over Peaches’s territory, killing off his various underbosses. This is how Colby’s wife and son were killed, blown up in a car bomb meant to take out Colby. But that was six years ago, and Colby’s out of the life, and Peaches is calling in old favors and wants Colby to come out of retirement for one last job.

Before that we get a taste of our hero’s sadism; he meets Scalise and Blaustein at a bar, and after the two thugs leave, Colby is hassled by a couple corncobs who give him a hard time for drinking soda instead of beer. Rather than walk away, Colby wades into the three of them, beats them to burger, then lines them up and drives over them. All because they said a few curt words to him. It’s insane, and again all very similar to Bronson: Blind Rage in its tone of ruthless brutality. So too is the relationship Colby eventually forms with a young Creole girl, their dialog very reminiscent of the dialog Bronson has with the young Latina girl in Blnd Rage. And finally, the word “focussed” appears here, same as in Blind Rage, so my proposition is that the same author wrote Bad Guy, and that author was George Harmon Smith. Or it was Aaron Fletcher, who also served as “Nicholas Brady,” but I’m going with Smith because the book is too similar to those Marksman and Sharpshooter installments Lynn Munroe identified as being by him.

But after this random bit of sadism Colby’s legacy of brutality sort of simmers for the rest of the novel, as he’s more busy putting together the getaway portion of Peaches’s job. Peaches you see wants to hit Gazzara where it hurts, robbing the vault in his Vegas casino and making off with as much of the two million therein as possible. Colby will be in charge of getting the heisters to freedom, and to that end he has basically a blank check to have a hopped-up car put together for him. Colby also suggests the use of “chunkers,” ie the bottom feeders of the underworld – people so poor they actually jump in front of cars, acting as decoys. As with most heist novels the plotting and planning of the actual heist takes the brunt of the narrative, with the heist itself occuring over a few frantic pages toward the very end of the novel.

What makes Bad Guy so interesting is the otherwise-arbitrary situations and characters Harmon Smith introduces into the text. For example, shortly after meeting with Peaches, Colby’s relaxing in his hotel room when there’s a knock at his door. It’s a gorgeous, well-built brunette named Ginger who has been sent over by Peaches to keep Colby company. But what would be a throw-away hardcore scene in a lesser novel is here built into a fuller relationship, with Ginger not a hooker but a housewife whose husband is in the hospital with some disease and she’s desperate for money, so she took the job. And Colby’s gruff with her, not wanting any sex tonight – there’s already been some off-page hanky-panky earlier, with Colby doing, and them dumping, some never-named woman he’s been living with the past couple months. But Ginger in her innocence brings Colby out of his shell, with the author successfully doling out three-dimensional characterization for both of them. In particular for Colby, as we see he suffers recurring nightmares of the day his wife and son were killed.

And then…Colby leaves the hotel next morning and Ginger’s never mentioned again. (And also the sex between them is off-page, for anyone out there taking notes – all the sex is off-page in this one, curiously.) There are all these random bits of characterization throughout the novel which are given so much initial focus and then unceremoniously dropped. The stuff with the clunkers is another case in point. Colby heads into Harlem to hire a renowned clunker, a smashed-up black guy who lives in a tenement building and is so poor that his kids rent out their rooms to local hookers. This guy brings in two more clunkers, both of them just as memorable: one of them, also black, speaks in overly-formal terms, and the other, a Hispanic guy, is so brain-addled from his clunking that he’s become a mindless robot for the woman who controls him. There’s more of that random sadism as the poor guy eagerly bashes his own head into a hotel room wall at the woman’s order. All these characters and more – even the inside man on the heist who has “the unmistakable drawl of the homosexual” – are built up at the expense of dense paragraphs, and then dropped from the narrative with little fanfare.

My favorite of all these arbitrary characters and situations is the bitter old Mafia consigliere Colby visits a little past the halfway mark of the book. Confined to home care with a “crazy woman” serving as his nurse, the old man is filled with hate, particularly toward Colby – as it turns out that Colby’s dead wife was the consigliere’s daughter. The old man blames Colby for the loss of his daughter and grandson, but Colby, undeterred, bullies the old man into getting some info. Through various plot developments, Colby has learned that there might be more to this heist than Peaches has let on, and the old consigliere would be able to find out with his connections in the Syndicate. Harmon Smith’s tongue is firmly in cheek as the consigliere gets increasingly irrational and furious with Colby, culiminating in the unforgettable line: “Go die, so crazy woman can pour my shit and piss on your grave.”

Colby heads into the Bayou for the getaway car, hiring a poor Creole auto repairman to build a custom vehicle. But the man’s niece turns out to be more important to the narrative: Camille, a hot-tempered Creole girl in her twenties who speaks poor English and who has waist-length black hair. With her fiery temper mixed with her innocent nature, she is as mentioned very similar to the girl in Bronson: Blind Rage. As is the budding relationship between her and Colby, which is almost G-rated given the tone of the rest of the novel. The old auto mechanic is glad to get rid of the quarrelsome girl, but Colby finds himself falling for her – again, unexpected character depth and character building. That being said, man there’s a lot of padding with Colby and Camille. Even late in the game, right before the heist we’ve been waiting a couple hundred pages for, there’s an interminable sequence of them going camping in the Bayou. But it’s true love, Camille even giving Colby her virginity – as we learn after the off-page sex scene.

Colby’s trick car is cool but doesn’t get exploited enough. Per his specific demands, it’s a junked-up old Chevy that has the guts of a Jaguar, and we get a lot of gearhead dialog about the various modifications to the engine and whatnot. Cooler yet are the touches the mechanic adds from his days of doing up cars for moonshiners, like a bucket filled with nail-balls that can be dropped into the path of pursuing vehicles. Colby also goes to various lengths to plot out the getaway, including getting a machine gun and stashing out a boat and a second getaway car in a place Peaches doesn’t know about. For as the back cover has so brazenly spoiled for us, Colby’s planning his own cross, having learned that the entire thing is a setup courtesy Peaches.

The heist goes down in just a few tense pages, but here Harmon Smith is lean and mean with the prose. And humorously whereas before we were informed almost relentlessly of pedantic actions and gestures, here bigger revelations are spun out with nonchalance – like the fact that Camille is a stone-cold killer. Colby’s brought her into the heist due to her ability to scale and climb obstacles, a needed skill in the heist of Gazzara’s vault. But once her part’s done Camille’s brought out a revolver and is blowing away cops and guards with ease. In fact she kills several police officers in the final pages, toting the M-16 Colby has acquired. Colby, his heist double-cross carried out with finesse, heads up the getaway, and this too is a fun, tense scene, complete with those nail-balls in use. But Harmon Smith seems to forget about the Chevy’s changeable paint job that he so heavily built up in the narrative; another of the old man’s tricks, a plastic sheen will fly off the car when the speed gets up to fifty m.p.h, with a different-color paint job beneath.

It appears that Bad Guy is relatively scarce and overpriced, but I’ll try to refrain from total spoilers. I will say the novel heads for the exact conclusion the reader expects; there’s already been skillful foreshadowing throughout, like Colby’s admission that he’s afraid to die. But once the heist is done, Harmon Smith decides he wants to do more of a Bonnie and Clyde thing. Even though he and Camille have the chance to get away scot-free, with all the money, Colby can’t let Peaches go unpunished; of course, he’s learned that Peaches was responsible for the death of Colby’s wife and son. So Colby and Camille stash the cash and slip into Peaches’s fortified mansion for a little revenge. This is another tense scene, which might play out a little too quickly, but then when you’re dispensing bloody payback with a .357 Magnum, like Colby is, there really isn’t much opportunity to draw out the kill.

But as ever Harmon Smith is unpredictable, with Colby’s vengeance sated but having a surprise conclusion, and the climax itself involves a tense standoff between Camille and the cops. In other words we’re headed for that mandatory downer ‘70s ending, but then it was only expected given that our “heroes” just wasted several cops in the heist and chase. Harmon Smith instead focuses again on Camille’s childlike love for Colby, even while bullets are flying around them. It’s an effective, memorable finale, and again reminiscent of Bronson: Blind Rage; indeed, Bad Guy features the exact sort of ending Blind Rage seemed to be headed for, but of course didn’t, because it was the start of a series and all.

Overall though I really enjoyed Bad Guy. It’s certainly too long, with way too much flab that could’ve been cut, but at its core it’s a mean, tense ‘70s crime thriller that should’ve received more attention. And the author, whether it was George Harmon Smith or not, is definitely skilled, giving us a lot more character depth and random plot quirkiness than might be expected from a Belmont Tower publication about a “hillbilly hoodlum.”

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Iceman #4: Sunday Fix

The Iceman #4: Sunday Fix, by Joseph Nazel
July, 1974  Holloway House

Joseph Nazel phones it in for this fourth installment of The Iceman; I knew going in that Sunday Fix probably wouldn’t be of much interest to me, given that its plot concerns pro football, but man, I didn’t think the novel would be boring. It’s more Banacek than Shaft as Henry Highland West, aka “The Iceman” (though usually referred to as “Ice” in the narrative), mostly just makes phone calls and sits around in his various opulent domiciles, offering homespun philosophy and pondering man’s inhumanity to man.

The novel opens in Los Angeles, where Ice is watching his newly-acquired pro football team, the Rattlers, getting their asses kicked by the Rams. Ice puzzles over this because his team’s made of good players but it seems they are intentionally fumbling plays. All very strange because Ice has hired “the best Black coaches” in America to handle the team. Oh and curiously, “Black” is always capitalized when referring to black people, yet “white” is never capitalized when referring to white people. Pretty racist if you ask me. And of course the villain’s a white guy, too, a sports-betting honkie named Reggie Owens who, Ice reflects, seemed all too willing to bet $40,000 on the Rams…as if he knew the Rattlers were going to lose.

After the game Ice visits the team along with his constant companion, colorfully-wardrobed Christmas Tree, who berates the players for their jive plays. Ice is more hesistant – and indeed will continue to be for much too long of the narrative. Even later, when he receives a panicked call from the coach, Stewart, Ice doesn’t think too much of it. Meanwhile we readers know that Stewart has been pushed into a bad situation by team manager Ray Hubbard…the Syndicate has moved in, and is offering Hubbard, Stewart, and any willing players $10,000 each to lose games. Hubbard himself isn’t for it but believes the white bastards have some dirt on him, so he’s forced to play along. But Stewart has had enough, mulling over his troubles as he drinks – seriously folks, Ice is practically a guest star in his own novel – and finally calls the boss man to meet.

But three Syndicate goons ambush him as he’s driving up the twisty canyon road to Ice’s seaside home in Malibu, or wherever it is. Ice is already in his “blue Ferrari” (his schtick is that everything he drives, flies, or wears is blue) and racing down to meet Stewart, wondering why it’s taken him so long to get here. He arrives just in time to see Stewart shot dead, then Ice has his .38 in hand and is in a firefight. Nazel greatly reduces the gore of the earlier volumes, with the goons just getting shot and falling down – previous installments had brains blasted out and whatnot. That being said, Ice does take down one goon with a kung-fu kick that comes straight out of Mace. It’s goofy, though, because Ice wastes the three goons…then Ray Hubbard shows up on the scene; he was also tyring to prevent Stewart from telling Ice what’s been going on. Ice suspects Hubbard of hiding something, but just sort of brushes it off…even after Ice has found an envelope with $10,000 in it beside Stewart’s corpse.

After this it’s to the slow-burn…Ice heads back to his palatial desert home, The Oasis, and cooks up some soul food for his usual entoruage: Tree, Kim (aka the Chinese one), Solema (aka the African one), and Jan (aka Kim’s sister, stated as being “the newest member” of the group). There’s also Maria, the sexy programmer for the Oasis computer, named Matilda. As ever Nazel doesn’t much bring the female characters to life, nor does he even much describe them – and also as ever, for a guy who runs a high-dollar cathouse (which is what the Oasis technically is), Ice himself shows little interest in women. There’s even a “hmmm” moment where we’re told that Maria’s revealing dress “would turn any man to her side…any man but Ice.” However later Ice does get busy with Solema, who as ever is presented as Ice’s main woman, but Nazel leaves it off-page, same as he does with all other sex scenes in the series.

Action is minimal; after the firefight with the goons who come to kill Coach Stewart, Ice doesn’t do much of anything. Even by page 160 there still hasn’t been much in the way of action (as usual the novel runs to a too-long 221 pages). Ice makes calls from the Oasis to try to get leads; one of his contacts is Numbers Nate, an older street hustler in Harlem who is “like a father” to Ice. Due to the many scenes that cut away from Ice (again, the poor guy’s a guest star in his own book this time), we know that “jive honkie” Reggie Wilson, the gambler from the opening chapter, has come up with the idea of getting the Mafia into the pro football scene, taking his idea to a capo named Roman Touletti. This gets its own too-long subplot, with Wilson often meeting with Touletti and going over strategy. There’s also lots of page-filling about Hubbard, the team manager, and a new Rattlers player fresh out of college who struggles with this whole “fumble plays for ten thousand bucks” scheme.

Things don’t pick up until near the 200-page mark. First Tree is almost ambushed by three Mafia thugs in Vegas, but Tree’s wise to them; when the decoy offers info for twenty bucks, Tree’s inistantly suspicious that someone would want such little pay for what he claims to be important info. So Tree whips out his .45, takes the guy to a remote location, and ultimately gets into a firefight, one in which Tree gets knocked out but still manages to kill his would-be ambushers before falling unconscious. At the same time Ice choppers out into the desert on his personal ‘copter to meet with Owen, who has called him with an offer – Owen’s learned that Touletti plans to kill him and wants thirty thousand dollars from Ice and safe passage to South America in exchange for all the info on the blackmail scheme.

This leads to the memorable scene of Ice, on the ground, wielding a .44 Magnum in one hand and a .38 revolver in the other as he takes on a small plane in the desert, the Mafia killers onboard having come to take out Owen before he could blab to Ice. It’s a cool scene, one of the moments depicted on the cover, but again Nazel dials back on the violence – Ice manages to hit the guy with the automatic rifle in the head with his .44, and later lands his ‘copter on top of the plane and crashes it. Meanwhile Tree’s gotten captured and taken to Touletti’s Vegas lair, so the finale features a rushed climax in which Ice leads his doll squad of blacksuited fillies on an assault of the compound. If only the entire novel was like this! We’ve got Kim and Jan taking out goons with kung-fu, Solema blowing ‘em away with a shotgun like a regular Coffy, and even Ice getting in on it with some knife-throwing skills.

But overall I found Sunday Fix to be very boring, and as stated above I get the impression Nazel phoned this one in. I mean he was churning these books out, so it’s only understandable he’d lose a little steam after a while. It’s kind of fun for the topical blaxploitation vibe, though, with Tree’s colorful pimp wardrobe squarely placing the book in the early ‘70s. Also Ice and his companions almost constantly use the phrase “Whatever’s fair!,” so I assume this must have been the hip black (sorry, “hip Black”) phrase of the moment. Also “What you say!” gets repeated a lot. And Ice himself continues to be the epitome of ‘70s cool, doing “Nogare breathing exercises” before practicing his karate moves, then fixing himself a Highball and pondering over the toughness of the world and how he’d kill just to see another beautiful sunset from his palatial desert home.

The series ran for three more volumes, ending in 1975 with the seventh installment, but currently this and the first two installments are all I have. In fact I was surprised to even discover this and the second volume sitting together in the “Rare Books” section of the downtown Dallas Half Price Books back in 2012 (for three bucks each!). But to tell the truth, The Iceman just leaves me cold (lame pun alert), so I don’t plan to seek out any of the volumes I’m missing. I’d say if you want a little blaxploitation with your men’s adventure you’d be much better off seeking out Dark Angel.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 12

More Biker Movies: William Smith Edition 

Angels Die Hard (1970): William Smith gets co-lead billing alongside Tom Baker (not the Dr. Who guy), but man it takes a good while before you even realize he’s in the movie. Also the online plot synopsis on this one, about “bikers coming to the rescue of miners,” doesn’t really happen – in fact, the first hour or so of the flick is comprised of the bikers running roughshod around some small town in the Californian countryside. That being said, there’s more biker footage in this one than practically any other biker movie I’ve yet watched: copious sequences, set to music by various obscure rock groups, of bikers driving along the roadside in their tricked-out hogs and choppers. There’s a lot of cool equipment on display, and my favorite’s probably the trike with the drooping hood, which is driven by this dude that looks for all the world like a Satanic hermit.

While the biker footage is primo, the flick itself has that usual muddled low-budget vibe; dialog is captured by a single boom mic and sometimes the voices of the actors are either inaudible or so shrill that they send the levels into the red – William Smith in particular. And no character is properly introduced, no story set up. Blair (Baker) and Tim (Smith) roll their club into some hayseed town and run afoul of the portly sheriff, and one of the club’s put in jail overnight. He’s let go the next day, but crashes as he’s driving past the county line, apparently run off the road by a local – you can tell the budget was low because we don’t even see the crash, the producers clearly not wanting to actually destroy one of the choppers. Indeed it’s hard to understand initially why the guy even crashes, as it’s a clear day, there’s no other traffic on the road, and he’s just choppering along, giving the finger to the town sign on his way out…and a sudden freeze frame and we hear a poor recording of a vehicle crashing.

Speaking of freeze frames and whatnot, director Richard Compton makes up for the low budget and the unknown actors with lots of inventive angles and artsy directing touches. Some of it is in the vibe of TV director Sutton Roley (aka “the Orson Welles of television”), with stuff like the camera sitting behind latticework so that the actors are partially obscured, or the camera put up on a casket while the bikers carry it into the cemetery. These biker movies are such a strange breed, because often you can tell that the director at least wanted to try something unusual, no doubt inspired by Easy Rider, yet the script as ever is a mish-mash of jarring styles. I mean their biker brother is dead and they’re all dour and then suddenly the plot’s about them drugging up an uptight undertaker and wooping it up while a couple mamas dance nude (not that I’m complaining about that last part). But at least we get to see William Smith deliver a sermon, complete with his massive arms bared and his voice redlining the boom mic with a shouted “Brothers!” Plus he seems to have gotten his clothes from Billy Jack. 

It's curious because there’s no “plot” per se for the first hour of Angels Die Hard, which is pretty incredible when you consider that the film’s barely 90 minutes long. But at the hour point, after being hassled once again to get the hell out of town, the bikers get word of a mine collapse and decide to go to the rescue. This is due to Smith’s character, Tim, who overhears some local yokels talking about it; Tim chuckles at the plight of the miners when he hears of the collapse, then sobers up when he’s told it’s a little kid that’s been trapped in the mine. Curiously this for soft spot for children parallels the attitude of another biker character Smith would play, in The Losers (reviewed below).

But man, talk about a poorly set up and even more poorly executed plotline: the bikers race on over to the mine and we have some shaky camerawork showing the locals trying to pull on a rope that’s going down into the mine. William Smith hovers over the proceedings…then we see some random biker come up out of the mine, carrying the kid! Who the hell the biker was I don’t think is ever even stated, but it sure wasn’t Blair or Tim. This, the event which is stated as the entire plot of the movie on some websites, comprises about five minutes of the film’s runtime. After this we get another go-nowhere subplot where a local beauty seems to fall for Blair, but her boyfriend gets jealous and tries to intervene. Burly Tim beats him up but feels bad about it…then the kid runs to the cops and the locals come in with firebrands and shotguns. The finale is hilariously inept in its staging, with major characters gunned down in an almost nonchalant manner; the ending too leaves it vague who survives and who doesn’t – and I watched the climax twice and I’m still not sure who causes the villainous sheriff to crash.

Eagle-eyed viewers will catch the occasional glimpse of Dixie Peabody (Dag in Bury Me An Angel) as a biker babe – briefly seen riding a chopper when the club heads for the funeral – and Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty as another biker, but neither get any dialog and are mostly just in the background. Hell if you wanted to, you could pretend that Bury Me An Angel is a sequel to this one, as Dixie Peabody’s character isn’t even named, so if you were bored or drunk or high or whatever, you could pretend she’s also playing Dag in this one, and maybe Dag’s ill-fated brother is one of the bikers we never get to see (it’s not like any characters are actually introduced, after all)…and hell, Dan Haggerty also appears as a background biker character without any dialog in Bury Me An Angel, so that just ices the cake.

C.C. And Company (1970): Former football star Joe Namath (whose sideburns radicalized Grandma Simpson) briefly tried his hand at acting, and I believe this was his first starring role. Co-starring Anne-Margaret and William Smith, the movie seems to have enjoyed a bigger budget than most other biker flicks, but hasn’t been served well by history; the copy I saw was sourced from VHS, and there doesn’t seem to be a better version out there. Quentin Tarantino featured the trailer for this movie in his recent Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, so maybe this will result in someone doing a proper restored release. Definitely more of a mainstream picture than most other biker movies – there isn’t even any violence or nudity! – C.C. And Company clearly strives to capture the counterculture spirit of the day, with various “sticking it to the man” sequences in its 90-minute runtime. We even meet titular C.C. Rider (Namath) in the process of sticking it, helping himself to a self-made sandwich in a grocery store (including a Twinkie for dessert!) but only paying for a pack of gum on his way out. Later in the film he’ll steal a dirt bike from a used bike lot, giving the hapless owner five bucks as “down payment.”

But otherwise C.C. is a good guy, or at least we’re to understand he is, given that he doesn’t rape beautiful, busty Ann-Margaret when he and his two biker buddies come across her stranded limo in the desert. Instead C.C. comes to her defense, decking his two pals, one of whom’s ever-sleazy Sid Haig (in a Mongol helmet, aka “the Yul Brenner look”). Anne-Margaret’s character is named Ann, and she bats her eyes prettily at C.C. for saving her, even joking that they’d better hurry with the sex before the Triple-A repairmen arrive. C.C. just smiles and drives off, and finds he’s gotten himself in trouble with club president Moon (Smith), who really lords it up, sitting in a “throne” and kicking around the club mamas. Smith as ever gives his performance a tongue in cheek vibe, including a funny bit where he complains that C.C. doesn’t really jibe with the club, which by the way is called The Heads. C.C. continues to run into Ann over the next few days, and I think Tarantino nicked some of the dialog here – there’s a part where she says how it’s interesting they keep running into each other, and I think the hippie girl with hairy armpits says much the same thing to Brad Pitt’s character in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.

Eventually we learn that C.C. just joined the Heads a month ago; Moon’s mama hits on him one night, basically demanding he screw her because she’s “twenty-nine days overdue” for some C.C. lovin.’ C.C. tells her no, but changes his mind when she mocks him for being afraid of Moon. But again there’s no nudity afoot, even during the infrequent “bath” sequences where the bikers and their mamas hop in the river to clean off. His sights though are clearly set on Ann, and when he discovers she’s a fashion photographer (or designer…or something), doing a shoot for a motorcross race, he even gets a dirt bike so he can take part in the race and impress her. Pretty certain it’s not Namath himself in the race scene – which features an awesome climax of C.C. literally pulling his bike across the finish line – but he does clearly drive the dirt bike and a zebra-painted chopper in other sequences. And looks pretty cool at it, too. I’m due for a mid-life crisis so these movies really have me thinking about a vintage custom chopper.

But curiously C.C. And Company is more of a romantic comedy than a biker movie; the plot, such as it is, centers around the unfathomable concept that gorgeous, jet-setting Anne falls in love with grungy, jobless C.C. There’s even a part where she asks him how he “gets along” without work, and here we get a vague backstory for C.C. – he was a mechanic who fixed up the club’s bikes, and when they wouldn’t pay him he fought them…then decided to join them. One wonders why, as he clearly doesn’t get along with the nigh-socialist makeup of The Heads; when C.C. comes in third at that motocross race, Moon demands that he give the entire proceeds to the club. C.C. refuses, leading to a brawl between the two, after which C.C. manages to again score with Moon’s mama…and steal back his money from her purse.

This leads into the finale, which has Moon and the Heads holding Anne hostage until C.C. can raise a thousand bucks. Instead C.C. manages to challenge Moon to a race, which is also ridiculous, something the script at least acknowledges with Moon’s flustered reply to C.C.’s challenge (“I mean, what is this??”). The ensuing race seems to go on forever, and climaxes with Moon suffering a spectacular crash; it’s unstated whether he survives, and the last we see of him his mama is cradling his limp ragdoll of a form. After this it’s on to a Happily Ever After for C.C. and Ann! Overall C.C. And Company is somewhat fun at least in its bright ‘60s colors and fashions, and has some good dialog in spots (when Moon’s girl makes a passing query on C.C.’s skills in bed, he laconically replies, “I manage to hang in there”). I don’t think it’s worth watching more than once, though.

Chrome And Hot Leather (1971): This might be one of my favorite biker movies yet, but for an exploitation flick it’s surprisingly tame on the, uh, exploitation angle; the violence is minimal and, even more shockingly, there’s no nudity! Otherwise it is a well-made grindhouse bikersploitation piece which comes off like the film version of a men’s adventure magazine yarn: badass Green Berets take on a biker gang. In fact if I’m not mistaken that is a storyline that shows up in at least one of the men’s mag stories excerpted in Barbarians On Bikes. The concept is actually well handled, though lacking in the blood and thunder you’d expect from such a setup, with even the final conflagration featuring smoke grenades and tear gas instead of full auto hellfire. There’s even an annoying tendency toward quick cuts during the plentiful fistfights, with director Lee Frost cutting the frame seconds before fists connect with faces. My assumption is this was intended to make the fake punches look “real,” giving the action a sort of pop, but unfortunately it just looks like something off Benny Hill.

The flick opens with what will be the only death in the movie: two pretty young women are driving around the California countryside when they encounter a pack of bikers: The Wizards, who are led by brawny T.J. (William Smith, who chews scenery like it was a protein bar – the dude’s seriously ripped in this one, by the way, and also receives top billing). One of the bikers, Casey (Michael Haynes, who looks so much like Ben Stiller in a bad wig and fake moustache I laughed out loud a few times), comes on to the women and demands they pull over. When they try to escape, inadvertently knocking Casey off his bike, he hops back on and hits ‘em with his chain, causing the car to careen down a canyon and roll a couple times. The Wizards take off and both girls have been killed in the crash.

Unfortunately for the bikers, the blonde in the car was the fiance of Green Beret drill sergeant Mitch (lanky Tony Young, the epitome of the Marlboro Man look). Without dithering over the point – again, I love how lean these vintage action movies are – Mitch rounds up three other Green Beret sergeants to dish out some payback: Gabe (Larry Bishop), Al (Peter Brown, but I spent the entire film thinking it was Monte “The Seven Million Dollar Man” Markham), and Jim (Marvin Gaye – the Marvin Gay, not just some random actor with the same name). Soon enough they decide to go undercover and do what the cops can’t: find the biker scum who killed Mitch’s girl. This entails buying bikes (red Kawasaki dirt bikes, but as it develops they have a reason for wanting dirt bikes and not choppers), learning how to ride them (a humorous sequence), and getting some biker duds with sergeant stripe patches and visored sunglasses.

Meanwhile the Wizards run around the countryside and fight each other; there’s a balance of power between TJ and Casey. As mentioned Smith receives top billing so there are a lot of otherwise-unnecessary subplots or scenes with him, clearly there so as to give him more screentime. Because really TJ makes for a poor villain; Casey’s the only killer in the gang, and indeed TJ tried to stop him from chasing after the girls in the opening sequence. There is an intentional sense of humor here which makes up for this, most notable in the rapport between TJ and spaced-out gang member Sweet Willy (Bob Pickett), including a very funny bit where TJ tries to lean on Mitch (undercover as an outlaw biker who just wandered into the Wizards’s bar). When an oblivious Sweet Willy continues to play pinball, Smith calls over to him, “Can’t you see we’re trying to menace someone?”

It’s little touches like this that make Chrome And Hot Leather so much fun. Also Mitch and his comrades are given enough personality to be memorable and fun to watch working together as a team. Marvin Gaye does very well in his role – his character’s the one who makes the random demand for red dirt bikes, perhaps as a payoff for an earlier line that he never even had a bicycle as a kid – but there’s a total miss when his first line is, “What’s happenin?” It should’ve been “What’s going on?” which would’ve made for such a lame in-joke that it would have instantly become legendary. Hell, he could’ve even hummed a few lines of the song afterwards. That being said, Gaye does provide a song to the movie, but otherwise the score is composed of the fuzzed guitar rock you’d expect.

Mitch gains the graces of the Wizards, long enough to hop in the sack with sexy Susan (Kathy Baumann), who just happens to be Casey’s mama. As mentioned there’s no nudity; when Susan disrobes for Mitch her body is completely hidden save for her shoulders and head. Even when they’re rolling around in bed she’s careful to keep herself covered by the sheets. This leads me to believe that Baumann either had a no-nudity contract or the producers were shooting for a more mainstream market than other biker films of the day. That’s not to say Susan isn’t slapped around and roughed up, though; they skipped on the nudity and the violence but the producers at least still delivered on that bikersploitation staple. Casey storms in on the two post-boink, knocks out Mitch, and slaps Susan around good and proper. This leads to another of those otherwise-random scenes with William Smith, where TJ asks Susan if she wants to stay in the gang after he’s kicked out Casey. A scene which ultimately has no impact on the plot…other, that is, than to give Smith more screentime.

The finale unfortunately drops the biker angle. Mitch and team head back to base and, in another comedic scene, order up a bevy of training weaponry, from smoke grenades to a mini-rockets. They put their Green Beret training to use and segregate the Wizards in a remote canyon and rain smoke grenades and tear gas missiles on them, then run roughshod on them on their dirt bikes while wearing gas masks. This leads to yet more fistfights, which is also how Mitch handles Casey, the murderer of his fiance – unsatisfyingly, there’s no fatal comeuppance for Casey. Instead it’s off to jail with TJ and the rest of the gang – including even Susan! But otherwise Chrome And Hot Leather moves at a steady clip, featuring fun characters and a self-mocking tone, and it’s a shame there was never a sequel. The whole “Sergeants” dirt bike gang was ripe for more exploitation.

The Losers (1970): Like Chrome And Hot Leather, the plot of this biker flick seems to have been ripped from the pages of a contemporary men’s mag: bikers in ‘Nam! This one’s even more in the men’s mag realm than the other flick, with plentiful violence and nudity; the opening sequence alone features spectacular blood quibs at work as we see the Viet Cong massacring various people. Likely this rugged pulp feel is courtesy veteran adventure writer Alan Caillou, who handled the script. However this one’s really more of a war movie than a biker movie, and the budget was also a factor because the fireworks are saved for the climax. This means that characterization takes more of a precendence than in other biker flicks…but at the expense of the fun, pulpy sort of stuff we expect from a true biker movie. Hell, there aren’t even any Harleys – let alone any choppers – in the film. The bikers ride dirt bikes! (Another similarity to Chome And Hot Leather). As one of them puts it: “That’s a girl’s bike!”

William Smith stars again as a biker boss: Link, who heads up the Devil’s Advocates M.C. We don’t get much background on Link, but there seems to be some particular reason why he’s so driven to rescue a CIA agent who is being held by the Red Chinese in Cambodia. Also we’ll learn he has a bit of a sensitive side; there’s an odd but touching bit where he picks up a poor little hunchbacked kid in a Vietnam village and gives him a quick ride on his bike. That being said, we clearly see Link blow another kid away in the climactic action sequence…so, uh, he’s an anti-hero at least. In fact Smith doesn’t get much opportunity to do anything emotive until late in the movie, with most of the runtime being given over to his fellow club members: There’s Duke (Adam Roarke), who seems to have taken this CIA job so he can hook back up with his Vietnamese girlfriend and bring her home as his wife; Limpy (Paul Koslo), who is of course named for his limp and also finds love here in Vietnam; Speed (Gene Cornelius), who wears a swastika bandana and doesn’t really do much but make racist comments; and finally Dirty Denny (Houston Savage), who comes off the most “true biker” of the lot, here in ‘Nam to check up on the whorehouse he opened and to in general raise some hell.

The movie opens in ‘Nam (aka the Philipines – and yes Vic Diaz shows up!), and there’s no flashback or anything to their previous life in the US, where we could actually see the Devil’s Advocates in biker action. Instead they show up and are given their orders, then it’s off to some godforsaken village where they can plan out the assault of the fortress in which the CIA asset is being held in Cambodia. The asset is named Chet Davis (director Jack Starrett himself), and our heroes know going in that they’ll be greatly outnumbered by VC and Chinese soldiers. But the place is only accessible via dirt bikes, so they go about the business of arming and armoring their motorcycles; Limpy gets an armored trike which looks cool but not nearly as sci-fi as depicted on the film poster. However way too much runtime is given over to various subplots; love is truly in the air for these grungy bikers, with both Duke and Limpy falling in love with local gals. Limpy’s subplot in particular is goofy because the girl in question is just some random hooker he picks up in Dirty Denny’s old bordello…and she has a kid! Sure we get some toplessness here, and I’ll never complain about that, but it’s hard to buy these badass bikers getting so lovey-dovey. Even harder to buy that Limpy’s new girl is actually the old girlfriend of their army contact, Capt. Jackson (Bernie Hamilton)…and that Jackson’s the father of the hooker’s kid!! This goofy-ass subplot reveal isn’t even much exploited.

I found a good bit of The Losers to be hard going. There’s an interminable bit where Dirty Denny goes nuts in his old bordello and raises hell; apparently this wasn’t far from the actor’s normal life, with “Houston Savage” often getting in trouble in the Philipines. He was mysteriously murdered about a year after this film was released – eerily enough, in much the same way his character in the film meets his fate. And yes, that Dirty Dozen riff in the film poster is pretty much a tip-off, as it’s clear going in there will be some biker casualties. Starrett really unleashes hell in the finale, with the armed bikes running roughshod over the Cambodian village. But there’s a definite “war is hell” vibe that gets in the way of the fun, with as mentioned shots of innocent kids getting gunned down in the melee. Indeed the film ends with a maudlin montage of various bloody deaths from the film while sad music plays, the producers clearly trying to decry man’s inhummanity to man…but meanwhile check out this cool machine gun on my motorcycle! As John Lennon declared years after starring in How I Won The War, it’s impossible to make an anti-war film. Sort of like how Hollywood elites are so anti-gun…yet fetishize guns in their damn movies.

Even worse is the finale, which I found incredibly frustrating. For one the assault on the village peters out too quickly. We have some explosions and racing around and some casualties for our heroes, and then Link gets into the tent in which Chet Davis is being held. And proceeds to start arguing with him. With egregious stuff like Link complaining about how bikers back home just want to “feel free,” and Chet Davis bluntly stating that he “represents America.” And meanwhile a minor-scale war’s still going on out there in the village! Davis proves to be a very ungrateful rescuee, trying to run away from Link and get him killed. Hell, during a later firefight he even tell Link he hopes he’s killed. Apparently in the backstory Davis got Link and his men arrested for being bikers or somesuch; I sort of lost the thread on this because I was so irritated by it all. The finale is also goofy with the US army showing up and sort of shooting at the VC and whatnot while Link, Davis, and the surviving bikers make their slow way to the border, with Davis again going out of his way to get the bikers killed. Anyway I’ve meant to watch this one for years, even got the DVD over a decade ago, but have only now watched it – and I really only liked some of it. And finally I think I’m bound by law to also point out that Quentin Tarantino featured a brief clip of this movie in Pulp Fiction; it’s the movie the annoying French girl was watching in the Bruce Willis segment of the film.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dr. Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #100)

Dr. Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1975  Award Books

This was the first of two volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster written by the mysterious author Will Murray designated as “Craig Nova” in his landmark Killmaster article, in the The Armchair Detective (volume 15, number 4, 1982). But as mentioned in the comments section of my review of the other “Nova” installment, The Nichovev Plot, it appears that the real Craig Nova disputes this and says neither book was written by him. So we either have a case where it’s just some other writer of the same name, or Will Murray was perhaps given some bad info. In instances like this I just assume J.D. Salinger wrote the book. (Plus there’s a scene where Killmaster dreams he’s standing in a field of rye!! Okay I made that up.)

The paperback itself is stuffed to the gills: we’ve got the title story Dr. Death for the first 160-some pages, followed by Run, Spy, Run, which was the first volume of the series. After that we’ve got a reprint of an original pulp-era Nick Carter tale. But as with the final volume, I’m assuming Dr. Death got the vaunted “100th volume” spot just out of sheer luck, as there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it. Like Dragon Slay, it’s really just business as usual, with Nick Carter – who now narrates the tale for us – going about the latest globe-spanning espionage case.

But it’s just “Carter,” now; gone is the “Nick” of the earlier, Lyle Kenyon Engel-produced years. Only the women who are about to hop in bed with him refer to our narrator as “Nick.” Killmaster would still be referred to by his last name when the series switched back to third-person narration in the mid-‘80s, but I kinda prefer the casual “Nick” of the ‘60s installments. Not that any other sane person would give a damn about such trivialities. Also the gadgets have been whittled down; Carter himself just sticks to his trusty trio of Wilhelmina (the Luger), Hugo (the stiletto), and Pierre (the gas bomb), and the plentiful gadgetry of the Engel years is gone. Strangely though, Carter’s two companions have all the gadgets, even though one of them’s the enforcer for a Chinese tong and the other’s an AXE stringer agent.

The title I found to be very misleading: “Dr. Death” gives connotations of some super villain Killmaster will go up against, sort of like the Mr. Judas of yore. But the titular doctor is an elderly Frenchman whose nickname was given to him back in World War II due to his skills with explosives; now he’s the head of some underwater weaponry research project and he’s been abducted by the OAS, a fascist French terrorist group composed of former soldiers. So Dr. Death is actually a victim, not a villain, and it’s another of those times where I assume the writer was catering to an already-devised title and plot and just failed spectacularly to reap the potential. I mean if you title a friggin’ book Dr. Death, you put a friggin’ Dr. Death in it! It’s not rocket science, is it?

Anyway the dude’s named Dr. Duroche and Carter is informed by a typically-gruff Hawk (who as ever has called his top agent away from his latest sex-filled holiday romp) that Duroche was on the tip of some groundbreaking underwater weaponry work. Whoever has him has issued some threats and the concern is all of the US’s offshore oil rigs will be destroyed. Carter when we meet him is in Tangier, meeting up with an old French intelligence contact named Remy. True to the lurid trappings of mid-‘70s Nick Carter, the meeting takes place in a “hashish club” with a hotbod brunette doing a strip dance in the background. Whoever this author is, he (or she?) is truly a gifted writer, bringing people and places to life with aplomb.

Remy does the heavy lifting of informing Carter of this latest threat, which means that his plot function has been fulfilled and he’s expendable – and true to staple a couple guys with Sten guns barge into the club and start blasting. “Nova” has successfully worked in the hot dancer throughout this scene, with her sexual gyrations increasingly distracting Carter and Remy, to the point that she’s half-nude when the bullets start flying and soon she’s got blood all over her suddenly-bared breasts. This sequence ends with a nicely-handled surprise reveal where the dancer turns out to be a chacter that’s integral to the plot. As with The Nichovev Plot, the violence might be intermitent but when it happens it’s very gory, with Remy’s head exploding and showering blood and brains everywhere. 

Soon Carter is aligned with lovely young Michelle Duroche, daughter of Dr. Death – the nickname, by the way, rarely if ever used in the actual novel – and they run into another trap; Carter has some acquaintance here in Tangier and figures he can use the guy’s club as a safe house, but enters through the rat-infested secret tunnel to find his friend tortured half to death. He takes out the torturers and gets a few clues from his dying friend, and then it’s off to the more pressing concern: sex with Michelle Duroche. I can’t recall how explicit the previous installment from this author was, but this one goes for more of a lyrical and metaphorical approach, with lines like, “Secret female places of her body opened to me.”

We do get the firm understanding that Michelle is practically insatiable, and she’ll serve as Carter’s prime female companion throughout the novel. Unfortunately though there’s nothing much memorable about her character. The other main female character is a lithe Chinese gal named Li-Chen, who has much more sparkle to her character, trading one-liners with Carter even when bullets are flying. Initially she appears as a potential threat, tailing Carter and Michelle as they make the long flight back to DC so Carter can meet with Hawk. Soon enough we learn that Li-Chen is part of a major Chinese family, aka a crime tong, and she’s here to represent the family, which has a vested interest in many of those offshore oil rigs that have been threatened. Even more ridiculously, Li-Chin – who you won’t be surprised to know is a kung fu “mistress” – has vast resources at her disposal, including gadgets like earrings that serve as radios.

Li-Chen doesn’t properly enter the narrative until the action moves to Puerto Rico, where the author gives the novel a bit of a horror vibe – again, similar to in The Nichovev Plot. Various plot contrivances have Carter looking into a leper colony, and we’re treated to a late-night sequence in which he enters the nightmarish compound and starts grilling some poor deformed guy who is missing some of his limbs. It’s all very Island Of Lost Souls as a group of lepers try to kill Carter, some of them armed with knives but most of them just reaching out to touch him, as they’re contagious and could Carter himself into a leper. This is where Li-Chen makes her big appearance, wiping out leper-creatures with her Sue Shiomi skills.

Surprisingly though, the author holds off on the expected shenanigans between Carter and Li-Chen; instead he goes back to his hotel for some off-page stuff with Michelle. She is jealous of Li-Chen but grudgingly gives in to Carter’s insistence that Li-Chen will be helping them out now. Another new character is introduced here, more interesting than any of them: Sweets Hunter, a black AXE stringer who owns a boat and has a fondness for chocolate, hence his nickname. He also has a host of gadgets, including a necklace with beads that are actually mini-grenades. Sweets is given more personality than any of the characters, and what with him and the similarly-memorable Li-Chen it’s like Carter is a guest star in his own novel.

The final third takes place in Martanique, where the OAS have headquartered themselves in a volcano, an element that’s almost casually handled. Instead more focus is placed on the Mardi Gras that occurs outside while Carter and team discuss their plans inside a restaurant. Soon enough garrishly-costumed celebrants come in, separate the group…and make off with Michelle. This sequence does feature the memorable image of Carter blowing away men in papier mache animal masks. But “Nova” pulls a fast one on readers; Carter and Li-Chen stage an assault on the OAS HQ, and after blowing away a few soldiers they’re caught and are taken to the OAS leader. Here Carter learns that one of his comrades was really a traitor all along, but what’s annoying about it is that we learn Carter’s already figured this out, without the reader being aware of it, and has devised a backup plan.

Thus Carter and Li-Chen just stand there smugly while an off-page Sweets runs amok in inside the OAS compound, blowing up computers with his mini-grenades. Hell, Carter even informs the OAS boss that he’s called in the army – again without the reader being aware of it until this very moment. It just all comes off like lazy deus ex machina, made all the worse by the fact that Sweets, a one-off character, does all the heavy lifting while the series protagonist just stands there. Indeed the big climax isn’t very, uh, climactic, with Carter and comrades escaping the HQ bunker while gas-bomb Pierre kills everyone unlucky enough to be stuck in there. Then we have Carter in scuba gear and chasing after that former comrade who has been revealed to be an enemy, dishing out payback with his stiletto.

We of course learn that Li-Chen and Carter will be hopping into bed soon, but at this point Dr. Death comes to a close, and on a dour note at that, with a former comrade now turned into shark food. But overall Dr. Death is competently written and fairly fast moving, though it lacks the fun charm of the Engel years. I guess the greater mystery is who wrote the damn thing. There is something vaguely familiar about the writing style, so maybe it was just one of the usual Killmaster writing stable who somehow got misattributed by Will Murray when he researched the series. Probably we’ll never know.

Finally, the book features what I believe is called a stepback cover; here is the uncredited painting of Killmaster on the inner cover: