Thursday, August 29, 2013
Skull, by Joe Buffer
May, 1975 Pinnacle Books
This is the only novel Joe Buffer published, which is a mystery, because Skull is actually pretty good. It’s not an action pulp like most other Pinnacle offerings, but instead is more of a character portrait sort of thing – however of a character who happens to be a paid assassin. Plus it occasionally drips with a sleaze quotient that just screams 1970s, which around these parts just adds to the charm.
Joe Skull is our protagonist (I love it that Buffer also named his hero “Joe”), though if you were to thumb through this book you wouldn’t see “Skull” mentioned very often in the narrative. That’s because Skull’s real name is Mike Farrell, although we don’t learn this for the first several pages; Buffer plays a neat little literary trick for the first twenty pages or so, making us think Skull and Farrell are two different characters. But anyway Farrell is our hero; he’s a former Marine sergeant, a ‘Nam vet in his early 30s who for the past two years has lived a double life as top-dollar hitman Joe Skull.
In his day life Farrell owns a restaurant, Mick’s, in Los Angeles. He runs it with his old ‘Nam buddy Ken Ozaki, and the place does great business, bringing in Hollywood elite and tourists alike. Skull really captures the mid-‘70s, seedy feel of Los Angeles, so I’d suspect Buffer must’ve lived there or was very familiar with the place. Farrell and Ozaki have a chummy banter, Farrell calling Ozaki “Buddha Head” and the married Ozaki betting Farrell that he won’t be able to score with Terri Layne, ie the pretty young hostess who has just started at Mick’s. Terri is from England, and we eventually learn that her real name is Vicki Thompson and that she has escaped from a sadistic drug kingpin in London who kept her as his sex-slave.
All of this stuff takes quite a while to get to, however. Buffer instead focuses more on Farrell’s daily life, hobknobbing with Ken and his wife Reiko and their kids, running the restaurant, and trying to get in Terri’s pants. There isn’t much hitman stuff in the novel, so there goes any expectations that Skull will be a blood-soaked action extravaganza. We meet Farrell/Skull while he’s on a hit, blowing away some young woman in a Dallas parking lot (Skull never asks questions about his jobs), but that’s pretty much it so far as his assassin life goes.
Instead, Buffer spends vast portions of the narrative flashing back to important times in Farrell’s life. Vietnam gets a particular focus; Farrell was also in charge of prisoners, where he occasionally got in trouble for being too cruel. We also learn that Farrell and Ozaki were pretty damn sadistic in combat, Farrell in particular, and that deep down he enjoys killing. There are also extended flashbacks to Farrell’s first hit as Skull, and eventually we learn how he got the gig in the first place (he took over the “Joe Skull” mantle from an old ‘Nam buddy as the guy sat on his hospital deathbed, having been crushed in a random car crash).
The narrative comes to an eventual broil as Kadak, the British drug kingpin, sends his men after Terri (aka Vicki) who has now become involved with Farrell. Kadak’s chief assassin Werner heads up the job, flying to New York and hiring some mafia thugs; Kadak’s order is that Terri’s death must be slow and painful and that it be caught on film for future viewing! But even here it takes forever for anything to happen, as meanwhile Farrell and Terri are busy falling in love, and Farrell’s even decided to terminate his sidejob as Joe Skull, Terri not knowing about his double life.
Buffer throws the curveball I was hoping for, when Werner, following the underworld prompts, makes contact with Skull via his phone service. Here Farrell, on the phone with Werner, is informed of his next job – kill a woman named Terri Layne and her boyfriend Mike Farrell! So begins a game of cat and mouse as Farrell, alert to the fact that mobsters are in LA looking for Terri, continues to pose as just a regular restaurant owner, while playing out the hitmen so he can take them out when they least suspect it. The final confrontation with Werner is also played out on more of a suspense angle (the novel never goes full tilt into action), however it leads to the ‘70s-mandatory downbeat ending.
There’s a sex scene in the novel (the only one, in fact) that’s so un-PC Skull could likely never be reprinted. Midway through the book Farrell hooks up with Tanya, a black high fashion model, and they instantly go back to his place for a night of sex. The two play off on their race differences, getting off on calling each other racial slurs; the entire scene, particularly the stuff Tanya screams as she’s screwing Farrell, is just so over the top that you’ll either be enraged (if you’re a PC square with no sense of humor) or laughing your head off.
Buffer’s writing is pretty good, but the constant jumping to and fro sort of diverted from the feeling of suspense or tension. He definitely has a gift for dialog, with Farrell and Ozaki in particular trading off an unending series of quips and in-jokes. I read somewhere that the New York Times gave Skull a positive review, something I bet didn’t happen very often for a Pinnacle paperback original. But it would appear Buffer never followed up on this promise, and thus this was his only book.