Thursday, August 23, 2012

Arrow #2: Naked Mistress

Arrow #2: Naked Mistress, by Walter Deptula
No month stated, 1974 Curtis Books

I’ll admit, I judged this one by its cover. Also due to the content – the back cover implies that Naked Mistress delves into the occult craze of the early ‘70s, and to a certain point it does. But the proceedings are ruined by a listless plot combined with a grating narrative style that quickly drives the reader nuts. Honestly, you could almost suspect that “Walter Deptula” is nothing more than a psuedonym of notorious hack Michael Avallone.

Arrow is Frank Arrow, a Hawaii-based art thief who grew up in the Little Italy section of New York, where he apparently once tangled with the Mafia. Arrow is now a sort of good-guy thief; he finds artwork that has been stolen and returns it to insurance agencies for a hefty finder’s fee. Apparently this life has been good to him, as Arrow lives on a rolling expanse with several employees at his beck and call, including a personal pilot (Henessey) and a sort of butler/majordomo/jack of all trades (Kimo.)

Arrow is a big problem with Naked Mistress. Way too perfect, way too idealized, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if he wasn’t also the narrator. Personally I don’t think first-person narrative works in the men’s adventure genre, one reason I’ve steered clear of the Nick Carter books. And first-person really doesn’t work here, because Arrow’s narrative is rendered in a sub-Avallone style that annoys the piss out of you. Like, short sentences. Real short. Shorter. Through the whole book. Even the characters. Yeah. They speak that way too. Punchy. And short paragraphs. Most just one line. Punchy. Too punchy. Then an ellipsis…

How much of this sort of thing can the reader take? Due to this grating style, Naked Mistress, which is barely 160 pages, seems twice as long. It’s not helped by the fact that little actually happens for long periods. Arrow’s latest caper involves the “Blacker Virgins,” a series of five paintings by Vermeer, recently discovered, which are “steeped in a history of Satanism.” As the story develops, Vermeer was hired back in the late 1600s by a satanic baron to paint a series of portraits of the baron’s mistress, spoofs of the Virgin Mary in all sorts of sexual poses.

The paintings are now on a world tour, making their way to Hawaii. As part of a PR event, the museum has tracked down gorgeous socialite Angel Blacker, a descendant of the mistress in those original Vermeer paintings, to attend the gallery opening. And of course, Angel is a dead ringer for her ancestor. Arrow gets wind that the Hawaii mob (who knew there was such a thing?) plans to heist the paintings. Further, Arrow discovers that the guy behind the planned heist is the brother of the mobster Arrow (apparently) killed back in the first volume of the series, and the mobster wants to kill two birds in Hawaii: steal the paintings and kill Arrow.

This proves to be the opening quarter of the novel, with Arrow trying to figure out how to avoid getting killed while still getting the paintings for himself. Then he meets Angel Blacker, who comes on to Arrow the moment she meets him at a lavish party. You remember how I said the guy was idealized. But while on their way for an impromptu casual screw (ah, the seventies), the duo are attacked and captured by the mobster who has it in for Arrow. Eventually Arrow – for reasons that strike of bullshit – is taken along on the art heist, for which Angel has been kidnapped as well.

Deptula’s take on action scenes is again rendered bland due to the “punchy” hardboiled-esque writing, which in my view makes everything flat and boring. With some inside help Arrow’s able to get free, and a few goons get mowed down by machine guns here, but nothing graphic or excessive. But at its end the mobster is dead, the now-stolen paintings are somewhere out to sea on their way to an unknown location, and Arrow and Angel have yet to screw. This last point is quickly dispensed with, though Deptula shirks on the dirty stuff as well…Angel does however have a recurring phrase she intones as she lays beneath Arrow: “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.” I guess Deptula’s intent is that this is a sort of incantation on Angel’s part, but it’s still pretty funny.

Angel, you see, is a sort of witch; she claims to be descended from one (the “naked mistress” of those Vermeer paintings, natch), and while she’s staying at Arrow’s he often catches her standing nude before the moon and praying to some god she calls “Rascha.” Unfortunately Deptula also skirts around the occult stuff. I really wanted an early ‘70s descent into satanic sleaze, but only got a mere dip into it. Instead, Angel heads to Mexico, where her fiance, the mysterious millionaire Salazar, lives – actually, he rules there, owning the entire village and surrounding area. Angel, despite her growing love for Arrow, keeps saying she “belongs” to Salazar.

Here boredom sets in as Arrow hobknobs about the Mediterranean in search of those stolen Blacker Virgin paintings. After a lot of padding he discovers the stolen paintings were forgeries. Clues lead him back to a reclusive village in Mexico…you guessed it, the one ruled by Salazar. When Arrow and his pilot Henessey head there, they are immediately taken under guard at the airport, told that the area is under martial law and strangers are not allowed in. Arrow lies that they’re here to visit Angel Blacker, which makes everything different, and they are allowed to stay, but still under guard.

Arrow’s meanwhile told that Angel is “indisposed,” and, once Arrow finds out that Salazar is hated by the populace due to his Satanism and his tyranny, not to mention that there’s an entire militia united against him, Arrow still doesn’t put two and two together and figure out that Salazar is the bad guy of the tale. There’s a laughable point toward the very end where Arrow finally gets it, and he’s thunderstruck. Meanwhile the reader was ahead of him chapters before.

It all leads to a raid on Salazar’s castle while a Black Mass is in progress; Salazar has apparently hypnotized Angel into believing she is her “naked mistress” ancestor reborn, and further Salazar himself is the old baron reborn, and I guess united the two are going to usher in a new dark age or something. And by the way, Salazar has the actual Vermeer paintings! (Exclamation point added in jest because of course he has them…we figured that part out a long time ago, too, I mean why else would the forger have last been seen in Salazar’s village??)

The action in the finale is also rushed, with the militia leader planting a bomb in Salazar’s place and everything coming down during the Black Mass. Arrow heads back to Hawaii to lick his wounds. Oh, and his cat is dead – turns out Angel killed it while she was staying there, as for some witchly reason she had an aversion to cats and so strangled it. And she maybe seduced one or two of Arrow’s men, while “possesed” by the spirit of her ancestor. Or something.

Really, this was kind of a frustrating read. It might’ve been better, if only. The narrative. Just too punchy. And the characters. Bland. Real bland. Boring. And now an ellipsis...


Zwolf said...

I somehow missed the existence of this series... but, it sounds like it's kinda worth missing. Yikes! Bland ain't good. I am looking forward to reading my second Bronson book now, though!

By the way, not all Nick Carter books are in the first person. First person works pretty well for me in those, but, that could be just me (I was raised on Mike Hammer books, so I have kind of a fondness for it.) After a point (all the ones with white covers, I think) all of 'em were in third person. In the early ones, it variated a bit. By next week I'll probably have the entire Nick Carter run... which is all the proof anyone would ever need to have me committed. :)

Joe Kenney said...

Zwolf, thanks for the comment. I saw the post on your blog of your accumulated Nick Carter collection and it was pretty incredible. True dedication! And yeah, the Arrow series is kind of worth missing...unfortunate because the content of this particular volume promised all sorts of lurid/early '70s occult fun, and it failed to deliver the goods.