Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Headhunters #1: Heroin Triple Cross

The Headhunters #1: Heroin Triple Cross, by John Weisman & Brian Boyer
February, 1974 Pinnacle Books

Thanks to Justin Marriott's Men of Violence magazine for bringing this unsung series to my attention. This was the first of four volumes which detail the gritty adventures of Detroit cops Eddie Martin and Jake "TS" Putnam, the "Headhunters" of the title. Members of the Detroit Police Internal Affairs division, it's their job to ensure their fellow cops don't yield to the rampant vice and corruption of Detroit and go over to the other side.

The cover proclaims this as "an exciting new series" and the spine is tagged "Adventure," but The Headhunters series is only nominally part of the men's adventure genre. It's more "Elmore Leonard" than "Don Pendleton." This is basically just a crime novel that revels in its own lurid nature, filled with gutter-talking conmen and gangsters with colorful names (and even more colorful wardrobes), of two-bit hoods who go on murder and theft rampages. And our two heroes have none of the diehard resolve of the usual men's adventure protagonist; indeed Martin and Putnam barely even appear in the novel, and have little to do with the plot, climax, or resolution.

Eddie Martin is the boss, a WASP-type married into money who considers himself one of the few uncorrupted cops on the Detroit force. But behind his conservative veneer lies a true hellion, most notably in the turbo-charged engine he's installed in his VW bug. But otherwise Martin's one of those guys who likes to play old jazz on the high-fi while reading the newspaper.

Putnam is the new guy, a young black cop who likes to gamble and wears the latest superfly threads. A confusing bit in the narrative is that authors Boyer and Weisman can't seem to figure out how they want to refer to Putnam. Sometimes he's "TS" (which stands for "tough shit"), other times he's "Putnam," and most confusingly sometimes he's referred to as "Jake." (It took me a second to figure this out...because when Putnam's first referred to as "Jake" in the narrative there's no indication we're reading about was only after jumping back to the brief bio handily inserted into the text that I learned that Putnam's first name is "Jackson," thus "Jake!") One of the basic rules of writing is to only refer to your character by one name, and one name only -- other characters can call him by a million different names, but the author must be consistent.

At any rate the villains are the true protagonists of Heroin Triple Cross. They take up around 85% of the narrative, and there are a bunch of them: first and foremost there's Henry Paquette, the series' recurring villain. A hulking black former cop, Paquette is now the kingpin of Detroit's inner-city crime ring who poses as a law-obeying entrepreneur; Paquette's a grandiose figure who steals the entire book. His core group is just as showy: there's Dovell, Paquette's hit man, another black tough who happens to be gay and apparently gets off on murdering; and there's Sonny Hope, an over-the-top type who dresses as loudly as possible and occasionally bursts into impromptu song. Then there's "Gloves" Lewis, a black cop on the take; he works for Paquette and lives a double life, one as a cop with a bad attitude, the other as a high-roller who lives in a fancy penthouse.

Finally there are three black youths who provide the thrust of the narrative. Street punks who kill cops, steal cars, and rob Paquette-owned businesses, all within the first few pages. The entire city wants them, but most of all Paquette, because they have taken from him. He tasks Gloves Lewis with killing them, all while making it look like they were resisting arrest. During this Martin and Putnam (I almost typed "Martin and Lewis") attempt to crack down on Paquette, trying to figure out who his inside man is. The novel alternates between all of the above characters, again giving it the feel moreso of a grungy crime story than your average men's adventure novel.

As you no doubt noticed from the character rundown, the majority of the characters here are black. And Boyer and Weisman, white authors, go out of their way to have them "talk black." In many ways Heroin Triple Cross comes off like one of those latter Blaxploitiation movies, the majority of which were written by white screenwriters, filled with a sort of psuedo-jive dialog. The n-word is dropped more times than on a rap album, so if you're sensitive to such things, you've been warned. But then the novel would scrape the nerves of anyone too sensitive: this is one sordid, lurid piece of trash fiction, filled with gruesome murders, cops who fart and discuss their own stink, and some very unerotic particular a platinum blonde bimbo who "does blacks for kicks" and who does something so "shameful" with them that even her own cheeks burn with embarrassment at the thought of doing it. (Boyer and Weisman however leave what exactly this is a secret; my own sordid imagination came up with all sorts of stuff.)

According to Justin Marriott's informative article, Weisman and Boyer were journalists for Detroit's Free Press newspaper, and there's a definite air of legitimacy to the inter-office rivalries, police corruption, and gangster vice, no doubt gleaned from their many interractions with Detroit's cops and scumbags. Per the authors however this first novel was quickly written, and it shows. There are a ton of grammatical and narrative errors strewn throughout, things which could've been caught with a cursory edit. But in a way this rough nature lends Heroin Triple Cross a sort of underground charm -- it reads like a fictional counterpart to the Nark! pieces Joe Eszterhas was writing at the time over in Rolling Stone magazine (which supposedly were mostly fiction themselves).

I've got the following three volumes in the series and look forward to them, particularly Quadraphonic Homicide, the final volume and the one Justin investigated the most in his article.