Thursday, August 30, 2012
The Specialist #5: The Maltese Vengeance
The Specialist #5: The Maltese Vengeance, by John Cutter
October, 1984 Signet Books
Unfortunately it’s one step forward, two steps back for the Specialist -– after a mostly-great fourth volume, author John Cutter (aka John Shirley) reverts to the repetitive, page-filling nature of the first two volumes of the series. The Maltese Vengeance is sort of a tedious affair, mostly given over to hero Jack Sullivan trying to figure out who wants to kill him while he’s vacationing on Malta, and Sullivan’s ensuing plans for vengeance. The reader spends the entire tale hoping that the plot will open up beyond this, but it never does.
My guess is that the breakneck publication pace was wearing Shirley down. The Psycho Soldiers was a cool slice of action exploitation, with a Charles Manson-esque killer running afoul of Sullivan. The Maltese Vengeance loses all of that, coming off like just a generic action novel. It opens with a bang, though: Sullivan, fishing off the coast of Malta, is fired on by a cannon from a fort in the harbor. Trying to find out who is behind his attempted murder, Sullivan takes on the local cops (not killing any of them) in his escape attempt, and eventually hooks up with Oliver “Ollie” Tryst (Oliver Twist??), a fellow mercenary and an old friend of Sullivan’s.
The two learn that the culprits were a force of American traitors, ‘Nam vets who now sell military hardware to terrorists. The guy in charge is Gortner, who back during the war massacred a village of innocents. During his massacre Gortner happened to murder a young Vietnamese woman and her child – this was the wife of Warneck, a disillusioned, drug-addicted shell of a man who now lives in Malta. It turns out that it was Warneck who summoned Sullivan to Malta; Warneck’s intent was to hire Sullivan to kill Gortner, but somehow Gortner’s men got hold of the news first, and so decided to take out Sullivan before he could take out them. Their mistake, as Sullivan often states, was that they didn’t kill him.
So this proves to be the plot entire. Gortner and his cronies are bringing in a host of new, experimental weaponry to sell to a delegation of Libyans. The most interesting character here is Skulleye, a Libyan so called due to the blue skulls tatooed on his eyelids. Skulleye you see was a follower of the infamous Blue Man, ie the terrorist leader Sullivan killed back in #3: Sullivan's Revenge. I guess Shirley must’ve realized he bumped off the Blue Man too soon, as he sets up Skulleye to be an even greater threat.
In fact Skulleye’s scenes are the only ones that bring to mind the better parts of the preceding novel. Skulleye is apparently impossible to kill, and there are several scenes where he’s shot up or blown away, only to come back to life. It’s a deft bit of dark comedy, and Shirley intimates that Skulleye will return in later volumes. Unfortunately the other characters aren’t nearly as memorable; Gortner in particular is pretty bland, and doesn’t get much narrative time, vastly outshone by Skulleye, who isn’t even the main villain of the piece.
As usual Sullivan still manages to get lucky, and here it’s with Rosalita, a fiery local beauty who throws herself at him. This entails the one graphic sex scene in the book, but Rosalita becomes a bit annoying, and in fact proves to be the (near) undoing of Sullivan and Tryst. Spurned by Sullivan, she tries to set him up, going to Gortner and telling him that Sullivan is planning a nighttime raid on Gortner’s compound. Gortner has his men lie in wait.
What’s unexpected is that this sequence proves to be the climax of the novel, taking up a full third of the narrative. It’s sort of endless, with Sullivan on the prowl in Gortner’s place, escaping the trap, fighting as he evades both Gortner’s soldiers and the Malta cops, rushing to a long standoff on a clifftop. It just kind of goes on and on, and again lacks the twisted nature of the last book.
Shirley still works in some of his humor, though. I haven’t figured out yet if he’s spoofing the stereotypical gung-ho action hero through Sullivan or what, but there’s a laughable part (intentional?) toward the very end where Sullivan, alone against a horde of enemy soldiers, psyches himself up to keep fighting by recalling the innocent people slain by Gortner all those years ago, and Sullivan starts screaming, “For the children!” as the enemy converge upon him. Shirely writes it that even the enemy soldiers are baffled at this, so who knows.
I didn’t much enjoy The Maltese Vengeance, but I figure this was only a momentary lapse. I mean, for all the boring stuff, there are still a few inventive touches, like the Arabic slavemaster Sullivan and Tryst deal with midway through the novel. And I still say The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle Executioner novels should have been.