Friday, July 30, 2010

The Penetrator #1: The Target Is H

The Penetrator #1: The Target Is H, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1973 Pinnacle Books

Mark Hardin, the Penetrator -- change that "i" to an "o" and you'd have the perfect pornstar name. I mean, what were they thinking? Mark Hardin? The Penetrator??

Actually, Pinnacle Books must've known what they were thinking, as The Target Is H was the kick-off of a successful series which ran for 53 installments.

It appears that "Lionel Derrick" was a house name for authors Mark Roberts and Chet Cunningham, with Roberts writing the odd-numbered volumes and Cunningham the evens. This first volume then was penned by Roberts, and it's very much in the Don Pendleton "Executioner" mold: ie, Vietnam-trained hardass gets burned by the Mob, and now wages a one-man war on them. It's high on action and thrills and light on character and plot (not to mention sex...meaning it comes off more like an '80s men's adventure novel than one from the '70s).

Later volumes opened the series way up but this first installment, despite its narrow plotline, is actually very good. Hardin has a complicated backstory -- raised in foster homes, he achieved early greatness as an athletic champion. His sports career ended by a bad injury, he entered Vietnam where he again achieved greatness, nicknamed "The Penetrator" for his ability to "penetrate" enemy territory and take out large numbers of enemy soldiers. Here too Hardin's career was terminated early, this time beaten to a pulp by his fellow soldiers after his investagtion into illegal sale of US military weapons on the Vietnam black market.

The Target Is H sets all of this up within the first few pages, with Hardin a battered shell returning home from 'Nam, unsure what to do with his life. Therefore it's a bit jarring that the next chapter opens up 7 months later, with Hardin now living in a secluded desert fortress with a "mad scientist" named Willard Haskins and an American Indian named David Red Chief, plotting a three-man war on the Mafia.

Even the reasons for this war are glossed over -- Hardin fell in love with Professor Haskin's niece Donna, who spurred Hardin to research the reasons behind his old high school football injury. It turns out that the guy who hurt Hardin was a low-tier mobster; this revelation lead the two of them further on until they somehow ran afoul of Don Pietro Scarelli, local mob boss, who had Donna killed in a car crash. (Again, all of this is rendered in elliptical flashbacks strewn through the main narrative; Donna doesn't even appear in the narrative, which is unfortunate when you realize that her love for Mark and her murder are the two factors in his genesis as the series hero.)

Hardin relies on his 'Nam penetrating skills to wage an effective war on Scarelli's mobsters. There are a few Mafia factions in the city and Hardin hits each of them so that soon they think one faction is battling another. Hardin's got a host of weaponry, most of it culled by Haskins, some of it developed by the Professor himself, such as a dart which can render a man to a death-like state for a few moments.

The battles are mostly one-sided, with the goons no match for Hardin's skills. Regardless the action sequences are all well staged and expertly rendered, particularly a great scene where Hardin gets a small army of mobsters stuck in a canyon and lobs white phosphorous down upon them. This is probably the most brutal treatment I've ever seen delivered to the mob in a men's adventure novel! But other than that there are a lot of running battles, with Hardin blasting away thugs with various automatic weaponry.

Hardin isn't the superhero typical of these types of novels. He has past injuries which he's still trying to overcome, and despite the horrendous losses he inflicts upon his enemies there are still many times in which he himself is in mortal danger. There's another great sequence where, barely able to move due to his injuries, Hardin has to scale a cliff in pitch-black darkness, escaping an assembled army of mobsters and police.

Character development is minimal, which again is a shame -- a "regular" novel would've centered solely upon Hardin's recovery of his body and psyche, whereas this one cuts past all that stuff just to get to the gory action. (That's not a bad thing...I'm just saying.) But you get to like these characters, and you look forward to reading about more of their adventures in future installments.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Sharpshooter #1: The Killing Machine

The Sharpshooter #1: The Killing Machine, by Bruno Rossi
August, 1973 Leisure Books

Here begins the 16-volume saga of Johnny Ricoletti, a young man recently out of "The Nam," where he was a noted marksman. Johnny is big into guns and hunting, and enjoys spending time in his country cabin, away from the city. Trouble looms -- the Mafia wants the company owned by Johnny's dad, and when the old man won't budge the mob guns him down. In fact the entire family is killed, and Johnny himself is injured in the attack, though he alone survives.

Recuperating, Johnny makes one of those comic-book decisions: he will wage his own personal war on the Mafia. Johnny Ricoletti is dead; he will now go by the name Johnny Rock. To complete the image makeover Johnny allows his hair to grow long ("modish") and also buys a whole line of Superfly-esque clothing (including, we're told, a "pantsuit with cape"! Oh, how I miss the funky '70s...).

Johnny puts those sharpshooting skills to work, wasting mobsters left and right. The Killing Machine is another of those '70s men's adventure novels in which the protagonist can do no wrong and indeed never even comes into any sort of personal danger -- so much so that eventually you begin to feel bad for the villains. The Mafia doesn't stand a chance as Johnny, using his anonymity to his advantage and striking hard and fast from the shadows, takes down top gunners, ruins long-planned mob events, and generally throws an incendiary grenade into the works. The way he gets his insider scoop is pretty funny -- he goes into a notoriously mobster-frequented restaurant and listens in on conversations!

The story opens up a bit with the entrance of Iris Toscano, one of those women who only exist in books like this -- a gorgeous brunette with a brick shithouse bod and with her own axe to grind against the Mafia; Iris was married to a top-tier mobster who was killed by the Family in a set-up. Iris has better connections within, surreptitiously gathering intel from her galpals, all of whom are mob wives and unwittingly deliver Iris info on where and when the local mob will strike.

Johnny and Iris become a formidable team, Iris using her wits to gather intel and Johnny using his various weapons (most of which he "brought back from 'Nam") to kill a whole bunch of goons. The action scenes are fequent and well staged. Even though you know Johnny will emerge unscathed, they still have a certain tension factor.

There's also a healthy sexual tension between these two; the reader knows (and the characters know) that they'll end up having sex; it's only a matter of when. Iris it turns out likes to keep Johnny "on edge" so he can use his vigour against the mob and not waste it in bed with her. However after one big, successful raid she rewards Johnny and this becomes the template for ensuing hits: like a dog getting a treat for performing a trick, Johnny gets to have sex with Iris every time he pulls off a successful raid.

Eventually Iris is the one who gets in trouble -- the Mafia would have to be total idiots not to realize where the intel-leak's coming from -- and Johnny must save her. The Killing Machine ends with Johnny and Iris deciding to take a vacation, then to return somewhere else in the States where they can continue their couple's crusade against the Mafia.

Only, that's not what happens.

One might expect Iris to be a central character in ensuing Sharpshooter novels, but she's only in one other book -- #9: Stiletto. The other Sharpshooter books feature Johnny working alone, with Iris unmentioned. Strange when you consider the import she has in Johnny's genesis as the Sharpshooter...yet not strange when you consider the many and varied hands which churned out this sordid series.

This first installment was, by all accounts, written by Peter McCurtin ("Bruno Rossi" being nothing more than a Leisure Books house name). And the writing's good, with some peaceful, idyllic moments strewn amid the carnage; in particular I enjoyed a sequence in which Johnny and Iris spent a brief vacation in his cabin.

My theory -- and it's completely ungrounded -- is this. Peter McCurtin probably wrote this novel as a standalone; hot off the success of his novel Mafioso (Belmont/Tower, 1970) he produced another tale about mob-busting. And I'm further theorizing that he titled his novel The Enforcer. For that's how Johnny is referred to throughout The Killing Machine -- not as "The Sharpshooter," but as "The Enforcer." McCurtin probably sold the novel to Leisure Books, and somewhere along the way they realized the storyline had the makings of a good series. So it became one, all under the house name "Bruno Rossi," and the standalone nature of McCurtin's novel was dropped so Johnny Rock could become more of a mob-killing caricature of Mack Bolan. And further, if this was to be a series then it would need a new name, as The Enforcer was already a series from Manor Books. Factor in Johnny's sniper skills, and there you have it: The Sharpshooter.

At least, that's what I think. All told, this is a fast-moving, action and sex-packed novel which, while good, isn't as deliciously lurid as some of the later installments in the series.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

TNT #3: Spiral of Death

TNT #3: Spiral of Death, by Doug Masters
July, 1985 Charter Books
(French publication, 1979)

The madness continues in volume 3 of Charter's TNT series: Spiral of Death. This story was actually volume 6 in the original French series (where it was titled Terminus Eldorado, cover below); I can only assume that Charter placed it earlier in the series because it comes close to recapturing the insanity of the death-maze from TNT #1.

This time Tony Nicholas Twin goes undercover to join a terrorist army deep in the jungles of Bolivia, one under the control of a self-styled "Napoleon of Terrorism" who has assumed the name Torquemada. Along the way there's Eldorado, a lost city of Incan gold; a death-maze called "The Death Spiral" from which only mauled, half-dead victims emerge; and a sado-masochistic woman named Epifania Galvan who wears a gold chain, one end wrapped about her neck, the other piercing her vulva, each link of the chain representing a man she has "conquered." (You can be certain Twin joins the ranks...and what with his sexual insatiability, he impresses Epifania so much that she deems the chain representing him should be made of a "more malleable material.")

Spiral of Death jettisons the template of the previous two entries; here, Twin navigates the obligatory death-maze halfway through the book rather than at the end. This is the "Death Spiral," a snail-like structure in the heart of the jungle devised by the Black Army terrorist faction. Twin is sent in with a group of other recruits; those who survive get to join. Talk about boot camp hell! The Death Spiral is nearly as twisted as the death-maze in TNT #1.

Contestants must roll electronic dice to determine their path, which means that luck plays just as much a part in surviving as their skills do. The death-maze features rooms filled with circular saws, pits of acid, poisonous gasses, flame throwers, and in one memorable sequence a dome filled with bees; Twin makes his way across while covered in several layers of them. When two constestants land on the same square one must kill the other, otherwise the computer which monitors the maze will release poisonous gas which will kill both of them.

This would be enough for most books, but Spiral of Death has just gotten started. Twin emerges to discover the terrorist camp is deserted. The Black Army leaders have turned against their employer Torquemada and have stormed into the jungle, determined to find his gold-filled Eldorado. In the carnage Twin comes upon the still-alive but injured Epifania and, since she alone knows where Torquemada is, they go into the jungle together.

Eventually they discover Eldorado, an idyllic paradise beneath the jungle floor, populated by descendants of Conquistadors and whores (they're equally proud of both) who wear no clothes, have sex all day, and know nothing of the outside world. In a stroke of narrative genius, Arnold Benedict happens to be there, having come to Eldorado in a very enjoyable sideplot. Benedict the germophobe can't bear these "indicent heathen," and to make it all the more entertaining he's unable to speak to any of them as they only know Spanish. And in a final twist of the blade, since Benedict is overweight they make him wear clothes.

But it's not all paradise, as the turncoat Black Army is closing in...

As mentioned, this was the sixth volume in the original French publication of the TNT series. Even without knowing this the reader may suspect that Spiral of Death takes place long after TNT #2: The Beast -- for example, midway through the novel Twin has a brief conversation with Dawlish, Benedict's right-hand man whom we last saw in The Beast. Twin and Dawlish are familiar with one another and discuss past missions they handled together, and yet the cagey reader will recall that Dawlish and Twin never met in The Beast.

Twin is a more dynamic character this time out -- and he engages in quite a bit of action (not just the sexual type). He still doesn't use any weapons, but there's a great sequence in the end where Twin, nude and covered in gold dust, uses his ability to see in the dark to pull a night-time raid on the terrorists, stalking and killing his prey one by one.

And speaking of Benedict, whereas in the previous two volumes he had to force Twin on his missions, here he literally begs him to take on the job -- and Twin finally agrees to it. No threatening from Benedict, no kidnapping Twin's daughter October and forcing Twin to drugging Twin up and placing him in a SR-71 Blackbird on autopilot. Obviously the relationship between Twin and Benedict is no longer as strained as it once was; further sign that Spiral of Death occurs well after The Beast. Again, I'm uncertain why Charter switched around the order of the volumes; it would be interesting to someday re-read these in the proper order.

Here's the cover of the original French publication, titled Terminus Eldorado:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gannon #1: Blood For Breakfast

Gannon #1: Blood For Breakfast, by Dean Ballenger

Manor Books, 1973

If you're not squeamish you won't want to miss this one!

Where to start?? Blood For Breakfast is one of the grimmest, bleakest, goriest, vilest, and misogynist books I've ever read. It's great!

The start of a three-volume series, this details a few weeks in the gutter-view life of Mike Gannon, a 31 year-old shitkicker who served in the military (missing both Korea and Vietnam though), saw some action around the world, and now works as a security officer. Gannon's sister is raped by two rich kids whose fathers now protect them from justice, so Gannon returns to the city to kick some shit. Mobsters, goons, college punks, gun molls, and other assorted pieces of riff-raff fall beneath his spiked brass knuckles or his savage karate chops.

Sure, the plot's standard, but the way Ballenger writes it... There's no way to truly replicate the dimestore Chandler goonspeak he's created here. Everyone talks the same way -- this super tough-guy chatter filled with brutal imagery that would stun a hardboiled private eye. (Choice line, from Gannon to a secratary -- one whom we're told, again and again, is a lesbian: "Get him on the phone or I'll kick your kotex up between your ears!") The gangsters, the gun molls who associate with them, the hard-living waitresses Gannon picks up (and "rolls"), even Gannon himself -- all of them talk in a fashion that reminds me of nothing so much as Fat Tony and his mobster goons on The Simpsons.

The problem with this novel, for me at least, is Gannon himself. No one but him is right, he barrels through his opponents without breaking a sweat, and even when he is captured he manages to turn the tables with ease. He has a violent streak which dwarfs even that of the so-called bad guys. He also has no problem with smacking women or chopping them in the throat.

Gannon straps on his spiked knuckles and delivers beatings which leave his victims mutilated for life -- and the narrative doesn't shy from the gore. In fact, this is one of the goriest books you'll come across, with mobsters blown up in car explosions, people shot in the face and hands, and ears chopped off as trophies. It's all as lurid as the '70s could get; even the sex scenes are grotesque, with Gannon the ladies man picking up women left and right, taking them back for a quick fuck, and then taking off.

This is a quick-moving piece of hardboiled crime fiction which will certainly leave an impression on you -- whether revulsion or slack-jawed disbelief (or both).

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My letter from Gar Wilson

As I've mentioned in previous posts, in my youth I was obsessed with men's adventure novels. My favorites were the Gold Eagle stable, particularly Phoenix Force. I subscribed to Gold Eagle, receiving a bimonthly package of 2 Mack Bolans, 1 Able Team, 1 SOBs (later on though I received a Vietnam series instead, which I never read), and most importantly, 1 Phoenix Force.

Phoenix Force was by far my favorite. Usually I didn't even read the other books but I always read Phoenix Force. I also scoured the racks of the Paperback Exchange in nearby LaVale, Maryland for back issues, soon building up quite a collection.

The series was by Gar Wilson, a man who, in biographical sketches included with the earliest volumes of Phoenix Force, had once served in various armies and had even been a mercenary for hire. My obsession was at its peak from ages 12 to 13, and even at such a young age I still found something a bit off about this bio. But what I didn't realize -- something I didn't discover for a few decades more -- was that Gar Wilson didn't exist.

"Gar Wilson" was a house name, created by Gold Eagle; house psuedonyms of course being a standard in the world of men's adventure novels. But again, I didn't know this. All I knew was that "Gar Wilson" was my favorite writer and Phoenix Force was my favorite series.

At any rate, as my obsession was wearing off I was becoming more interested in sci-fi. I'd wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, so one day in late 1987 I sent Gold Eagle an idea for a Phoenix Force novel which in my mind combined action with sci-fi. I don't have a copy of my letter, but if I recall it correctly, the Force battled some terrorists who were plotting against NASA and ended up on a space ship headed for Mars. I think they even got in a fight on Mars.

I should mention I was thirteen years old when I wrote this. (And I was still going by the name "Joey!")

I sent off my handwritten letter and early in January of 1988 I got a letter back! A scarlet red envelope, containing a typed letter on the same colored paper. An editor from Gold Eagle telling me that, though they appreciated the letter, my story was not fit for Phoenix Force as it was moreso science fiction than adventure. They also informed me that a trip to Mars would take several years, something I'd failed to grasp at the time. (I still have a copy of this letter and maybe sometime I'll post it as well.)

But what really took my breath away was a single sentence, at the very end of the letter: "A copy of your letter has been forwarded to Gar Wilson."

And then, a week or two after that...another letter came in for me, same Nashville, IN return address as Gold Eagle's letter had come from (though post-stamped "San Diego, CA"). But with the name "Gar Wilson" above that return address.

An actual letter to me from Gar Wilson!

I've typed up the letter below, but it's hard to convey the thrill I got, reading through these three crisp, hand-typed pages. Complete with typos and white-out and "Gar's" signature; hell, I still get a thrill reading it.

Gar Wilson
Gold Eagle Books
PO Box 1035
Nashville, IN 47448*

Joey Kenney
PO Box 480
Fort Ashby, WV 26719

February 12, 1988

Dear Joey:

I received a copy of your letter concerning your story plot idea for a future PHOENIX FORCE book. I want to personally thank you for the story plot suggestion about Phoenix Force combating terrorists and winding up on a space shuttle to Mars. Judy Newton has already sent you a letter explaining why this idea would not work for Phoenix Force. I have to agree with her, but I’m writing to you because I don’t want you to be discouraged and give up any hope of writing stories in the future.

Your story is good, but it isn’t right for PHOENIX. The stories in Phoenix Force are in a contemporary setting. They’re taking place in the present. Since the space program is currently on hold…more or less…the idea of a trip to Mars isn’t apt to happen for some time. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t develop a story with the same plot, using characters you come up with on your own instead of Phoenix Force.

I also suggest you first study the accepted style for manuscripts for books (neatly typed, double-spaced, proper use of quotation marks, sentence structure, ect.) you also have to consider how long you want the story to be. PHOENIX FORCES are usually 250 pages (manuscript form) which is about 220 when printed in book form. Your story may be shorter or longer, depending on what you decide to do. Shorter stories might be submitted to magazines. To be honest, since you’re a relative newcomer without many credits as a published author, you’d probably have a better chance getting started as a writer by writing stories for magazines. That’s how I started. I wrote twenty short stories and novelets for

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detective magazines before I started writing full-length novels for Gold Eagle. Book publishers are reluctant to take material from anyone without a track record. Magazine publishers are more inclined to take stories from new guys.

I suggest you also go to the library and look for THE WRITER’S MARKET. It is a book, new editions come out every year, and it prints the various markets for writers. Book publishers, magazine publishers, ect. Look for the 1988 edition. It is a rather expensive book so I suggest you go to the library instead of buying a copy. Look for what magazine or book publisher would be most likely to print a story of the type you wish to write.

When you finish the story (book or short story or novelet), proof-read it for errors. Then send query letters to publishers. Write the letters in proper business-letter form (like this one) and give a brief description of your story (about one page total. Longer descriptions probably won’t be read because editors get a lot of material sent in and they’re more apt to read brief, neatly typed descriptions than long wordy ones). If a publisher is interested in your story, they’ll write to see it. Be sure to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with the submission of the manuscript. If a publisher doesn’t accept your material, they’ll mail it back to you and you’ll try to send it somewhere else. Oh, yeah. Make a copy of the manuscript and keep it for your own use, just in case.

Now, every writer gets rejects. I still get them. Gold Eagle doesn’t accept every idea I come up with for Phoenix Force either, so don’t feel bad that your idea wasn’t accepted. Editors are people and they have opinions just like everybody else. They’re not necessarily right or wrong, but they are the guys who take or reject material. If they reject something it doesn’t meat it isn’t any good, it just means they don’t think it will sell as a book. I’ve written stories which were rejected by one publisher and accepted by a different one the same month. Rejections happen. They’re disappointing, but it happens. If you really want to be a writer, you’ll keep trying.

Another thing, I suggest you research subject matter as much as possible.

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I write stories that take place in countries and cities I’ve never been to. I include dialogue in languages I don’t speak and subjects I know nothing about until I’ve done research on the material. The more information you can get on a subject, the better you can write about it. Knowledge is never a waste of time anyway.

Try to find out as much as you can about writing books or short stories before you try to submit anything. Do the best you can every time you write and NEVER CHEAT YOUR READERS. A fiction writer is a story teller. Those stories are suppose to entertain the reader. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody makes errors in stories occasionally, but if you always try to entertain the reader (as well as please yourself) you can’t go too wrong.

I’m writing a rather long letter here and I hope you aren’t bored, but I recall when I was thirteen and wanted to be a writer. I didn’t get any encouragement at the time and a lot of people thought I was just a geek dreamer. People said “you know how much competition there is” and “how many guys are trying to do that.” I won’t say it’s easy. It isn’t. Writing is a lot of hard work, time consuming effort and every writer I’ve ever known has had some big disappointments. Yet, it is very rewarding to see one’s material in print.

Another thing that’s very rewarding is knowing that folks are reading my books and enjoy them. When a reader takes the extra effort to write a letter to me concerning PHOENIX FORCE it is always appreciated, especially from someone interested in writing. If you decide to pursue writing, good luck and bear in mind it can be tough at times, but few things in life worthwhile come easy. Thanks again and good luck whatever you do.



Gar Wilson

* Envelope stamped “San Diego, CA, 16 FEB 1988”

I'm not sure how many times I read this letter. My interest in men's adventure novels waned, but my passion for writing continued, and it was in fact from this letter that I learned about the Writer's Market.

And the letter was very inspirational; I followed "Gar's" advice and, after much struggle, succeeded in selling a few short stories, following his advice on how to break into the market. Though I've yet to get a novel published, I'm still trying, and currently have two manuscripts under consideration (neither of them would fall under the "men's adventure" rubric but I've got something in mind that might...!)

In early 2000, years after receiving this letter which still meant so much to me, I briefly became re-interested in the men's adventure novels I'd read as a kid; only then did I look up Gar Wilson. This is when I discovered he was a creation of Gold Eagle.

Ten years after that and I'm back again, reading these novels I enjoyed ages ago. And I'm still wondering who exactly wrote me this letter. It was obviously one of the series writers, but which one? The San Diego postmark is certainly a clue; does anyone know if any of the "Gar Wilsons" lived there?

Regardless, I just want to say "thanks" to Gar Wilson, whoever you are/were; this letter has always been and will continue to be one of my treasured posessions.

3/13/13 Update: A big thanks to Stephen Mertz, who has informed me that the above letter was actually written by William Fieldhouse! Fieldhouse was one of the authors who served as Gar Wilson, and the one most fans consider "the" Gar Wilson. Stephen told me that recently he spoke with Fieldhouse, who remembered writing the letter to me! What I find so great about this is that I now know that my favorite Phoenix Force novels were actually written by Fieldhouse, meaning that this "Gar Wilson" letter was really sent by my favorite author. Not only that, but it was thanks to Fieldhouse that I even got into this genre -- it was his Phoenix Force novel Night of the Thuggee that served as my introduction to men's adventure novels. I discovered it in a WaldenBooks store in late October 1985 when I was 10 years old, bought it, read it, and became an instant fan.

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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sexual Strike Force, by Alex Henry

Sexual Strike Force, by Alex Henry
Dell, October 1972

They were the erotic underground...and their mission was a hard one...

This Dell paperback original from late 1972 encapsulates the immediate Post-Woodstock vibe: it's as freaky and funky as an unwashed hippie coming down from an eight-mile high.

Our hero is Harry Trantus, an orphan of Greek heritage who is raised by a strict (yet depraved) Catholic priest named Father McCurdle to become an ultra Right-Wing nutjob. Harry's so gung-ho for the Establishment that upon graduating high school he repeatedly writes E. Ledger Mooney (ie J. Edgar Hoover) for a position with the NBS (ie the FBI). Harry soon becomes their top agent in his zealotry to crush all "Anti-American" sentiment, cracking down on rock groups, dopesmokers, hippies, and any other longhaired threat to the American Way. But like Mooney himself, Harry is most concerned about S-E-X and its wanton effect upon the country.

Mooney sends Harry on his biggest job yet -- infiltating a terrorist cell of subversives who dub themselves "The Sexual Strike Force." Eco-terrorists who in a desperate bid to save the Earth have begun filming "blue movies" starring the daughters of various high-ranking industrialists and inserting them into TV broadcasts. The daughters are willing accomplices, and the films usually detail them getting screwed in literal and metaphorical means -- ie, the daughter of a man whose company is ruining the ecosphere gets reamed by a guy in a lion mask. Unless the demands of the Sexual Strike Force are met, more films will be made. It's unknown how many members comprise the cell; all that's known is that it is under the command of a mysterious woman known only as "Earth Mother."

Harry will be the 13th agent sent undercover into the Strike Force; the previous 12 have all gone native and sent Mooney their resignations. Infiltrating via a past acquantance named Angela Rose, a fellow orphan with whom he had his first sexual experience many years ago -- a woman who is now a core member of the Sexual Strike Force -- Harry becomes a still photographer on the sets of the blue movies. From here he meets a host of other wild and whacky Sexual Strike Force members while trying to discover who Earth Mother is; along the way Harry finds out that he has more in common with the Strike Force than he ever would've guessed.

Sexual Strike Force comes off like a parody of the men's adventure novels so popular at the time, but rather than endless gun battles it's composed of endless sex scenes. Like a Joseph Rosenberger novel which goes on and on with fight after fight, Sexual Strike Force goes on and on with sex scene after sex scene. To me this rings as satire, but the narrative does glean upon its own depravity; Harry is informed that the Sexual Strike Force battles violence with sex, hate with love, death with life. That's their motto at least, but regardless the novel is hardcore porn. (Don't get me wrong; I'm not judging, I'm just describing.)

The book opens with a hardcore sex scene, only to immediately plunge into another...and then follow up with a third a few pages after that. The same template is followed throughout, but somehow Henry is able to get a bit of character development in there. The novel is also a satire of various personalities/establishments of the late '60s/early '70s, which obviously gives it a dated feel -- but for me only adds to its charm.

So who was Alex Henry? It's certainly a psuedonym; no other work appears to have been published under this name. What with the crazy monikers of the various organizations and characters (ie the Gay Guerrillas, Earth Mother, E. Ledger Mooney), I get a Robert Anton Wilson vibe, but this book doesn't show up in any of his bibliographies, and "Alex Henry" wasn't one of his usual psuedonyms. (However, "Simon Moon" was...but beyond that Sexual Strike Force just doesn't read like Anton Wilson's work.)

There are of course a wealth of lurid elements on display, in particular Father McCurdle's treatment of the young Angela Rose: He likes to have her strip down and watch as she masturbates herself with a crooked candle, and then when she's finished he covers her with a blanket and pisses on her exposed feet.

Yep, it's that kind of book.

But it's all in good fun.