Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Specialist #1: A Talent for Revenge

The Specialist #1: A Talent for Revenge, by John Cutter
Signet, March 1984

The start of an 11-volume series coming in on the tail-end of the men's adventure genre, A Talent for Revenge is a middling start to what I hope will be a better series. Why do I hope? Because in one of my frequent fits of madness, I ordered every single volume of this series before reading a single one. This required a lot of web-searching and cash, so now I'm duty-bound to get my money's worth.

First of all, "John Cutter" is a psuedonym of sci-fi/horror author John Shirley. He wrote all 11 volumes of this series, but these days he disowns them. I hate when authors do that. Stand by your work, even if it's Mein Kampf, you spineless bastards. If you believed in it enough to write it at the time...then it's yellow-bellied to backtrack later on and claim it all as something you did "to pay the bills."

And the Specialist himself, Jack Sullivan, is no yellow-belly. The cover by the way is a bit misleading; note those white-haired temples on the not-to-be-confused-with-Mack-Bolan Mr. Sullivan. I assumed this implied that the Specialist was a bit older than the average men's adventure hero, a salt-and-peppered man of action with more years but more experience than the scum he goes up against. But Sullivan it turns out is a mere 35; the white hair is the result of a shock he endured in the past, when his wife was killed by the KGB or the mob or terrorists or someone. Sullivan's made a lot of enemies in his time so one of the underlying themes of the series is his quest to discover who killed his wife.

A Talent for Revenge opens with Sullivan in France, a few years out of action. He now operates as "The Specialist," taking on big jobs in which someone has suffered at the hands of a powerful enemy. His contact, Malta, a former CIA operative, arranges Sullivan's latest job -- to kill Ottoowa, an Idi Amin-type who has been ousted from his "empire" in Africa and now lives in exile in France. A madman with a penchant for torture and murder, he struts about in the uniform of a 19th Century British officer and commands several mercenaries as his private army. Sullivan is hired to bring his employer, Julia Penn, the head of Ottoowa on a silver platter. Literally. Penn's sister was murdered by Ottoowa and she has been driven insane by her lust for vengeance.

Ottoowa is holed up in an island fortress off the coast of France and Sullivan must storm it alone. In command of Ottoowa's mercenaries is Hayden, Sullivan's old friend and the man who taught him most of what he knows. Hayden is now a shell of his former self and works for the lunatic Ottoowa just because he only lives for his job. In addition to this there are bikers-turned-mercenaries, mafia hitmen, and a nubile French girl who goes nuts for Sullivan's "eight inches of pink steel."

It all sounds exciting, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the novel itself doesn't live up to it.

A Talent for Revenge is as single-minded as a Joseph Rosenberger novel. For 180+ dense pages of tiny type we read as Sullivan scouts Ottoowa's fortress, plans his attack, kills a few guards, and then sneaks away. On and on and on. There's no variety or surprise or anything! It's relentless in its narrow vision. Everything is stretched out until we reach the finale, which is, of course, Sullivan finally storming the fortress and dealing with Hayden and Ottoowa. Everything beforehand is just filler, and what's most frustrating is that it's such padded filter.

Unlike most men's adventure fiction, A Talent for Revenge is at times nearly poetic in its description of the verdant foliage and jagged crags which make up the scenery -- good writing, but it comes off as turgid in a novel about a commando on a murderous mission. To make matters worse, when the ending arrives it all goes down exactly as you expected it would.

Thumbing through the other novels in the series it appears that they improve, that they open up a little. Here's hoping, because I am now committed to seeing this thing through.


Will Errickson said...

Lots of those '80s horror guys wrote men's adventure series; Joe Lansdale and David Schow come to mind. Not sure, however, if they disowned them as well. But you're right: stand by your work! Everybody gotta pay the bills...

Jack Badelaire said...

I read and commented on a number of these back in my earlier days, and I need to find some of those old reviews and post them. In his own way, The Specialist is as nutbar psycho as The Death Merchant, only he gets a lot more tail. Shirley has a disturbing habit of informing us of the length of his character's manhood in every other novel, and when the books delves into back-door lovin', it is a sure sign it's jumped the shark. Still, The Specialist is pretty friggin' entertaining; I mean, at one point he actually throws a motorcycle at a guy, crushing him to death.