Thursday, March 15, 2012
Narc #3: The Death List
Narc #3: The Death List, by Robert Hawkes
September, 1974 Signet Books
The Narc series continues with another installment from the gifted pen of Marc Olden (here posing as "Robert Hawkes"), who brings to life the grim and gritty inner-city squalor of mid-'70s New York City. The Death List though is a bit less of an ensemble piece than previous books; for once, hero John Bolt is the star of the show. Unfortunately though the careful plotting and character-patchwork of previous volumes is lost, and The Death List settles into a sort of repetitive pattern.
The "list" in question is actually a notebook filled with the names and numbers of a globe-spanning group of heroin suppliers, smugglers, dealers, and buyers. It's owned by a high-ranking gangster in NYC named Mr. Church, who is murdered by another gangster early in the novel -- as usual in an Olden novel, the villains constantly plot against one another and indeed are more responsible for knocking each other off than the heroes themselves. But also as usual in an Olden novel, things spiral quickly out of control for the characters.
Frank Spain is the name of the gangster who ordered the hit on Mr. Church; the hitmen are a trio of brutal, dirty cops. They make the hit as an orgy's in progress; one of the attendees is a busty stewardess named Betsy Kerwin (Olden reminds us quite often that the lady is busty, by the way) who occasionally prostitutes herself for some extra cash. In the bathroom when the hit goes down, Betsy is able to throw a topcoat over her nude body and escapes down the fire escape. Later she discovers that the heroin list has been stashed in her purse -- in a narrative bit that doesn't ring true, we're informed that Mr. Church liked to stash the list in odd places, to keep it safe, and the latest such place happened to be Betsy's purse while the orgy was going on.
The dirty cops give chase and soon a young narc-in-training is dead; not only was the guy Betsy's boyfriend, he was also Bolt's trainee. So now Bolt and his comrades at D-3 are determined to find the culprits behind the hit on Church. Bolt handles the brunt of the mission himself, burning for vengeance. He tracks down Betsy, and in another of those stellar Olden setpieces we have an ongoing action sequence that has Bolt getting hold of her shortly after the hit; Spain's hitmen set in upon them; Bolt and Betsy escape, commandeering a cab; the hitmen crash the cab and chase them on foot through the deserted streets of nighttime NYC; Bolt and Betsy break into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an unarmed Bolt heads for the Medieval section and arms himself with an ancient battle axe and crossbow bolts. It's a taut, exciting scene, the highlight of the novel.
Betsy escapes, though, and here The Death List sets into repetition. Now the rest of the novel comes off like an endless sequence of Bolt trying to find Betsy, only to lose her. Meanwhile the lady herself tries to make a buck; one of the names in the list belongs to a high-ranking US government official, and Betsy calls him with threats: if he doesn't get her some money, and quick, she'll turn the list over to the media. The official meanwhile calls his contact in France, the main heroin supplier in Church's list. The French contact promises the official that Betsy will soon be dead.
Somehow everyone ends up in Paris. Bolt's there too, posing as a Mafia hotshot; he's brought along a former girlfriend, an actual mob gal who's in love with Bolt but who lives under witness protection. For some reason that didn't make much sense, Bolt has brought this lady out of "retirment" so she can use her famous name to make it seem to the underworld that her branch of the Mafia family is in Paris because they know that Mr. Church's famous list is here, and they are interested in buying it.
What's strange is that the Paris scene is over and done with in a jiffy; we have another fine action scene in the airport, after which everyone flies back to the US. Everyone except for Betsy Kerwin, however, who in a moment of panic falls out of a grounded plane and breaks a bunch of bones. Her character then disappears from the novel and it's as if Olden realized he had too many characters to juggle and so disposed of her quickly, despite having built her up through the first half of the book. I really suspect that Olden made up these novels as he wrote, without the beneficial guidance of an outline, and sometimes the books suffer as a result.
Characters from previous novels return, including a black D-3 agent who works undercover as a pimp, going about in gaudy clothes and a big floppy hat. He and another agent serve as backup while Bolt continues posing as a Mafioso; with Betsy Kerwin out of the picture and the list gone (we learn that she mailed it to herself in Paris and it basically drops out of the narrative), Bolt now pretends that he in fact owns the list, so that the scum will come to him. And they do, Spain sending his trio of cops after it; and the cops, of course, want the damn list for themselves and plan to kill Bolt and set up Spain for the murder. Like I said, everyone's mind is always working in a Marc Olden novel.
So, not the greatest volume in the series, but still enjoyable. Also once again the cover shows events that actually happen in the book -- and look, there's the busty stewardess herself!