The Baroness #1: The Ecstasy Connection, by Paul Kenyon
February, 1974 Pocket Books
If I could meet just one character from a men's adventure novel...then it would just have to be the voluptuous, brunette, high-cheekboned, sex-starved Penelope St. John-Orsini, aka The Baroness. For sure the creation of a male writer, the Baroness is so gorgeous as to turn heads wherever she goes, she just loves a good time, and she can kill with her bare hands. Plus she's a millionaire...and a supermodel!
The Baroness is usually tagged as a "female James Bond," but she's more like a female Doc Savage. For, like the Man of Bronze, the Baroness is the leader of a group of men and women who are differentiated from one another moreso by their specialities than by their personalities. There's Tom Sumo, the Asian electronics wiz, Skytop, the American Indian ruffian, Wharton, another big guy who hides his love for the Baroness...and some others, but they were all so bland and incidental to the narrative that I couldn't remember them or tell them apart.
In the first installment of this 8-volume series, we meet the Baroness en media res -- in true men's adventure tradition there's no origin tale for our heroine. Instead her backstory is awkwardly placed in the first half of the book as a quick, two-page flashback. Married twice, her first husband a secret agent, her second a baron, the Baroness is a widow twice over. Bored with her high-society, jetsetting life, she decided to make connections with her first husband's circle, eventually becoming an uber-secret agent operating under the codename "Coin," her handler codenamed "Key," himself a top-secret NSA agent who answers to no one but the President.
The Ecstasy Connection blasts full steam ahead from beginning to end. An unknown new drug has worked its way into the elite echelons of drug society, an ecstasy pill (decades before such a thing existed) which sends users to a level of such sexual euphoria that they lose the ability for any basic functions. The opening features a montage of various people suffering the consequences -- most memorable of the lot is when an opera singer disrobes before her audience, plays with herself, and dies backstage of multiple orgasms. When an operator in a missile control center falls under the drug's sway, the NSA calls in "Key," who calls in "Coin," and the Baroness and her team are on the job.
There are some good setpieces here as the Baroness investigates. The highlight -- and the highlight of the entire novel -- is when she infiltrates a mob-thrown party in a downtown tenement building, one which turns into a drug-fueled orgy. This sequence just keeps improving upon itself, revelling in its own exploitative energy, as the Baroness, fully nude, hides herself in an orgy as the entire party is gunned down, and then, still naked and unarmed, plays a game of cat and mouse with the encroaching mobsters, killing her prey from the shadows.
Eventually the team goes to Hong Kong, where they've traced the mysterious drug. Here we meet the villain of the piece: Petronius Sim, a mountain of blubber (I kept envisioning him as a late-model Orson Welles) who lives in extreme opulence in a Hong Kong villa, surrounded by armed mercenaries and "juiceheads," unfortunates whom he has gotten hooked on his pleasure center-enhancing devices. These people have metal plates in their heads, into which they are fed electricity which stimulates the hypothalamus, giving them jolts of pleasure beyond normal human experience. Sim is devoted to pure pleasure -- his first name being a dead giveaway -- and his master plan is to get the leaders of the world hooked on his drugs and devices so that he can...rule the world.
There's a lot of action and sex from here on out, and some psychedelic stuff too, which I especially enjoyed. Sim and his scientist henchman Dr. Jolly have constructed an artificial brain "the size of a small house" with which they "map" the brains of their victims; the Baroness is hooked into it and the sequence which ensues comes off like a lurid variation of the finale of Stanley Kubrick's 2001.
Whoever Paul Kenyon was, his writing isn't bad. At 224 pages, The Ecstasy Connection moves at a steady clip, and it's a fine introduction to the series. There's some good dialog, inventive action setpieces, and a lurid quotient which outdoes pretty much any other '70s men's adventure novel (which is saying something!). Both the action and the sex scenes are incredibly graphic, the latter moreso. Which makes me wonder. The Baroness series is unlike most other men's adventure novels in that the main character is a woman. Therefore, the sex scenes are told from a woman's perspective. And again, these sex scenes are very graphic, with no detail spared.
So I wonder -- who was this series written for? It's obviously part of the men's adventure genre, but since it has a female lead character it subverts the entire "men can empathize with the protagonist" thrust of the genre. But with The Baroness series...I mean, let's face it, the Baroness is having sex with men, and the sex scenes are from her point of view. So it seems a little...strange to me. Are male readers meant to empathize with this protagonist as she has sex with...men? Or was this series some sort of attempt at a "women's adventure" genre?
To give further thrust to my theory, the advertisement in the back of The Ecstasy Connection is for Eileen Ford's A More Beautiful You In 21 Days, a book for women -- how to lose weight, stay young, etc. You know the marketing of '70s paperback fiction..."If you liked this book, you'll love..." So then why an ad for a female-centric book at the back of Baroness #1? But then... for every time we have a sex scene from the Baroness's perspective, there'll be a moment where we can objectify her in true men's adventure tradition; ie, she'll start ogling herself in a ceiling mirror. So who knows.
Anyway, it's incidental. This is certainly one of the best men's adventure series ever published, up there with TNT. (In fact, that would be the team-up of all time, the sexually-insatiable Baroness running into the sexually-insatiable Tony Nicholas Twin...)