Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Sharpshooter #4: The Worst Way To Die

The Sharpshooter #4: The Worst Way To Die, by Bruno Rossi
February, 1974 Leisure Books

Johnny Rock is back in another entertaining installment of the The Sharpshooter series, a little more slower-paced than the previous three volumes but still packed with the same grisly dark humor. This volume marked Leonard Levinson's first work on the series; Levinson is an author I first became aware of a few years ago when I discovered his unsung classic The Last Buffoon. Anyone who has read that novel will know that Levinson has a great sense of humor, one which is apparent throughout The Worst Way To Die. Also, this is by far the best-written volume yet in the series. (However I'm not saying it's the best volume. How could anything top the insanity of Blood Bath??)

What's strange is that The Worst Way To Die could almost serve as the initial volume of the series. Johnny Rock is only getting started on his vendetta. Mobsters aren't even sure who he is. Meanwhile, two volumes ago, in Blood Oath, he was so famous that magazines were running profiles on him. I guess you could say this novel is like a "missing chapter" from The Killing Machine. There's of course no mention of Rock's gorgeous female partner, Iris; Rock consistently reminds himself here that he is waging a lone war. It's as if he has never met her. (Or, more likely, that Levinson never read the first volume of the series!)

But this is a very human Johnny Rock in The Worst Way To Die -- so human in fact that Levinson refers to him throughout as "Johnny" rather than the more typical "Rock." He gets nervous before his hits on the Mafia, he worries he might get caught, he regrets that he cannot live a normal life. There are many scenes where Rock will walk through New York City and look at the people who pass him by, envying their humdrum lives, wishing he too could go home to a loved one and eat a nice dinner and watch TV all night. But for all of his hummanity Rock is still consumed by rage, and Levinson brings it to life in a big way. Indeed, you could say this installment shows how Rock became the twisted monster of the other volumes. For he repeatedly "hungers for Mafia blood;" if he goes just a few days without killing a mobster he is consumed with anger and can think of nothing else.

Another thing Levinson brings to life is the tedious lot of the Mafia-killer. Rock marvels over how he spends most of his time waiting, and so Levinson shows us this. There are many scenes of Rock wasting time while he plots his next kill. Shopping, walking around the city, reading the paper. In fact you could go so far as to say that parts of The Worst Way To Die are boring -- which is pretty unusual in that we're talking about a volume of The Sharpshooter!

But this is just a trick up Levinson's sleeve; he lulls you into the tedium of Rock's life, then out of nowhere delivers gruesome, shocking scenes that remind you of the previous volumes. He's done a fine juggling act here, presenting a Johnny Rock who considers himself a nice guy, yet who can still pull off violent acts of murder. In other words, he's delivered a protagonist who is a psychopath but doesn't know he is a psychopath.

The plot itself is standard -- Rock is initially captured by a Mafia enforcer with pronounced buggy eyes (ie, a proto-Steve Buscemi), an enforcer Rock dubs "Snake Eyes." This guy suspects Rock might be this mysterious person who has been knocking off Mafia, so to be safe beats Rock to a pulp and orders two of his men to take him off and kill him. Rock of course turns the tables and escapes, bloody and battered and consumed with gaining vengeance upon Snake Eyes.

Again, this is early in Rock's career, as he goes to a family friend's house, an elderly doctor, and has to explain to the man about his new purpose in life. The doctor patches Rock up and meanwhile his daughter Angela, a girl Rock's age, teaches him the art of disguise via makeup and wigs. Rock hits on her throughout, unable to believe how she has grown into such a woman since last he saw her. (Or, as Rock so memorably puts it: Jesus, how'd she grow those big tits?) Rock knows that he cannot involve any woman in his violent life and so eventually leaves the family; there is a funny scene later in the book where he hires a hooker to sublimate his feelings for Angela.

After lots of planning Rock gets his vengeance on Snake Eyes, and the whole sequence stays true to the brutal tone of previous volumes. Rock beats the guy to shreds with a pair of brass knuckles, blows his head off, and tosses the corpse onto the man's "swinger" girlfriend -- a stewardess whom Rock has chained to her own bed. "Start swinging," Rock tells the shocked girl.

But we're only halfway through the novel; even though he's attained his vengeance, Rock knows that there are countless more Mafia vermin out there for him to exterminate. He sets his sights on bigger fish, realizing that he hasn't yet killed any Mafia "bigshots;" further sign that The Worst Way To Die is an early chapter in Rock's career.

This entails a lot of planning and time-killing on Rock's part. This novel might be trying for most readers in that nothing much happens for long stretches of the narrative, but I really do enjoy Levinson's writing. Also, he was one of the men's adventure writers who was known for putting a lot of sex scenes into his books -- his Butler series, published under the psuedonym Philip Kirk, was notoriously sex-filled -- so there are a few scenes of Rock getting lucky, in particular with a hippie chick who rents the apartment beneath his.

At length Rock carries out his big hit, his victims a pair of brothers who have taken the place of the dead Snake Eyes. This is a great sequence which almost brings to life the awesome cover illustration for Blood Bath, as Rock wastes the mobsters while they're eating pasta in an Italian restaurant -- only here Rock first hits them with vomit-inducing gas grenades and comes out shooting while wearing a gas mask. Finally he pulls off his biggest hit, murdering the father of the men, a Mafia chief, as he attends their funeral. This last bit features the most shocking example of Rock's psychosis yet: with his sniper rifle, he first assassinates the chief and then assassinates his (no doubt innocent) young daughter.

And with this The Worst Way To Die ends -- Rock hops on his stolen Honda motorcycle and speeds off toward Manhattan, having just murdered several unarmed people, a young woman among them. There is nothing heroic or vengeance-sating about it, and it leaves a rotten taste in the reader's mouth. But I would bet this is exactly Levinson's intention. Again, the Sharpshooter series is a satire on Don Pendleton's "hero," The Executioner; Levinson is savy enough to know that in reality, any man who wages a lone war on the Mafia would have to be a psychotic bastard himself. And he shows it in unforgettable ways throughout this novel.

Levinson turned in a few more volumes of The Sharpshooter, including the next one. I also suspect he wrote a few volumes of the similar Marksman series, but I haven't found anything to confirm it.

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