Thursday, October 31, 2013

Super Cop Joe Blaze #2: The Concrete Cage

Super Cop Joe Blaze #2: The Concrete Cage, by Robert Novak
March, 1974  Belmont-Tower Books

Another men’s adventure “series” in only the loosest sense, Super Cop Joe Blaze ran for three volumes and might have had a different author for each installment. Credited to house name “Robert Novak,” all that’s known for certain is that Len Levinson wrote the third volume. Content-wise the series is pretty much identical to Ryker.

Marty McKee in his review of Joe Blaze #1 complains about how bad and boring the novel is, which leads me to expect that the same Robert Novak wrote this second volume. Blaze is referred to as “Blaze” throughout (meaning there are no half-assed editorial changes to the protagonists’s name), but regardless he’s basically the same as Ryker, a hardnosed cop who doesn’t take crap and doesn’t mind bending the rules. At least, that’s how the back cover has it; as the narrative itself plays out, Blaze is just a regular cop, nothing “super” about him at all.

The back cover, with its huge logo proclaiming “WHITE SLAVERS,” also has you expecting a lurid thrill ride, but sadly The Concrete Cage doesn’t deliver on this either. In fact, the book is pretty much a routine and mundane police procedural, only sporadically sleazed up with quick descriptions of the mauled female corpses Blaze comes upon in his investigation. Other than that, it’s all very bland. I mean, Blaze doesn’t even kill anyone in the novel! There’s something I never thought I’d write about a ‘70s men’s adventure protagonist.

The Concrete Cage opens with a bang, though. An ambulance pulls up in front of a department store in busy Manhattan and a group of masked guys hop out and, at gunpoint, corral several pretty young women into the ambulance. One of the women refuses to go with them and they shoot her dead. The women taken captive, the ambulance roars off, and several minutes later the cops arrive to find a bunch of shocked witnesses stumbling around.

Blaze is on the case, assisted by his partner Ed Nuthall. Blaze gets very little background and is just presented as your typical New York cop, but really there’s nothing outrageous about him and he doesn’t fight with his superiors and fellow cops like De Mille’s version of Ryker does. In fact Blaze appears to be well-respected; there are laughable scenes here where the Commissioner will gape helplessly and ask, “Joe, what do you think we should do?”

Despite the shocking nature of the kidnapping, the crooks turn out to be pretty stupid. Blaze manages to track them down within a day, though it is pretty much a narrative cop-out; after “asking around” for several hours, Blaze ends up in a bar where some drunk claims he overheard someone asking how they could go about renting an ambulance!

From there Blaze follows an easier trail than you’d expect, getting the lockdown on the kidnappers in no time flat. Turns out they’re a small gang lead by a career con named Jack Tunney; Blaze learns this from pimp Homer Chase, who was part of the aduction. There follows a long, long sequence where Blaze and the Commissioner offer Chase immunity if he’ll rat on where the girls are being kept, but at the expense of many, many pages of repetitious dialog Chase finally refuses the offer, afraid Tunney would have him killed anyway.

Meanwhile the gang begins issuing demands to the cops: they want a few million and they’ll let the girls go. Initially their plan, according to the info Blaze unearths, was to sell the girls to hardcore sadists who wanted “fresh meat” to abuse and torture! Now that Blaze has figured out who they are, the gang instead turns to a straight kidnapping scheme, and they aren’t playing around; they begin leaving mauled and mutilated corpses around Manhattan and the Bronx, as warnings that if their demads aren’t met they will murder all of the girls.

This is where the book’s scant lurid quotient comes into play – Blaze as acting investigator is called to the locations where the corpses have been discovered, and Novak (whoever he was) provides all the gruesome details of how the poor women have been hacked up and disfigured. Other than that though the sleaze element is downplayed, without even a single sex scene. In fact the book is pretty bland and padded mostly with go-nowhere dialog exchanges.

Novak finally gets around to providing some action at the very end, when the cops find out where the gang is hiding out with the girls. Blaze convinces the Commissioner to allow him to go in solo and, as stupid as ever, the Commissioner agrees. This is a nice and tense scene where Blaze sneaks into the darkened building, but again it’s ruined in that it goes on too long and everything works out exactly per Blaze’s plan – he finds the girls, gets them out of the house, and then corners the two gang members while the rest of the cops move in on the front of the house.

The ensuing firefight is also bland and played out along the lines of a ‘70s TV cop show, with lots of ducking and running and no one getting killed. It all leads to an overlong car chase straight out of Bullit as Tunney makes off in a stolen car and Blaze pursues. And that’s that, the crooks are caught and the girls are free and everyone’s happy (everyone apparently forgetting about the ones who were mauled, mutilated, and murdered).

The most interesting thing about The Concrete Cage is where the cover art was sourced from; through a complete fluke I happened to discover that it was taken from the March 1968 issue of the men's adventure magazine Male -- and don’t you love how in the original painting this shades-wearing dude, who on the cover of The Concrete Cage is supposedly Blaze himself, is holding a pistol to the head of a cop?

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Devalino Caper

The Devalino Caper, by A.J. Russell
January, 1977  Ballantine Books

First published in hardcover in 1975, The Devalino Caper is another heist novel that really promised a lot more than it delivered. I’m unfamiliar with A.J. Russell, but despite the listless plot his writing is pretty good, particularly when it comes to dialog; he doles out some great tough-guy chatter, some of which wouldn’t seem out of place in Gannon. But then, dialog is part of the novel’s problem, as I’ll gripe about momentarily.

The action opens in rural Indiana, where Joe Dev has been flown in by a local crime boss for a specific purpose. Dev is around 30 and Italian born and raised, only having lived in the States for the past decade. He came here with his brother Bruno, who we soon learn is back in New Jersey where he and his wife and child have been taken captive by some Jersey mobsters; if Dev doesn’t pull a job and get them the $100 thousand Bruno owes them, then the mobsters will kill Dev’s brother.

As for the Indiana caper, Dev’s been summoned by Bick Anson, the underworld boss of this section of the state; he runs the place with his assisstant, the Indian. The caper involves breaking into the high security compound of Cugarman, a megawealthy recluse who has gotten hold of a million or so in securities. Anson has hired Dev because he’s legendary for his breaking and entering skills. Dev’s a tough guy for sure, but not a violent criminal; he informs Anson that he never uses weapons on his heists and has never even owned a gun.

Anson puts Dev up in a whorehouse run by a heavyset black madam named Harriet; there are only three prostitutes who live here: Helen, Julia, and Alice, and Russell spends a goodly portion of the narrative building up these characters. Julia and Alice have an ongoing rivalry, which is soon compounded when good-looking Joe Dev shows up and takes an immediate liking to Alice. There’s a fair bit of sex in The Devalino Caper, but Russell shies from the details – his characters all seem to have walked out of a David Mamet production, though, dropping F-bombs left and right.

Which brings me to the dialog. This is one of those novels where a character is introduced and he has this odd way of speaking, odd but memorable, and you think hey, this is pretty cool, a character with such a unique voice. Then another character appears, and he or she also has a unique way of speaking. Then a third and a fourth, until you realize that every single character has a unique way of speaking, and they all talk a lot. According to the author bio Russell was a screenwriter, and I can easily see that -- The Devalino Caper is like a Tarantino film or something, just filled with characters who talk and talk. (Nothing against Tarantino, I’ve always enjoyed his movies, but sometimes I wish his characters would just shut up and DO something!!)

But these chattering characters bring the novel to a dead halt. They chatter on and on, about their hopes and dreams and backgrounds, and the pages tick by, so that we’re almost a hundred pages in and we haven’t even gotten to the caper itself. Even interesting little oddball bits get shunted aside for more dialog, like the bizarre introduction of a cop named Cooley who knocks over gas stations for spare change. (I believe that’s supposed to be Cooley in the cover painting, by the way, illustrating a scene where he brutally mistreats one of Harriet’s whores – again, a scene which itself isn’t described in the narrative, we just hear about it.)

And as for the caper, when it goes down it’s almost laughable, given how lame it is. Dev’s built up as this almost-mythical conman famous for his impossible heists, but all he does in The Devalino Caper is get Julia to take a job as a waitress in Cugarman’s mansion (Julia now being Dev’s girl, once he’s figured out Alice is secretly working for the Indian) and Dev sneaks into the compound in the trunk of her car! He hides in her room’s closet by day and sneaks around the premises at night. After all the buildup I was expecting a lot more.

The final quarter of the novel deals in turnarounds and surprise reveals, but here again it’s more talk than anything. The few action scenes are perfunctorily delivered, Russell telescoping the details so that none of it is satisyfing. For example when Dev takes on the crooked cop Cooley while he’s beating on the hooker, the ensuing fight is flat and over quickly – not that the characters don’t talk about it a whole lot. The finale as well, with Dev fighting the Indian and some goons, is rendered so flat as to be anticlimatic.

Actually the best thing about The Devalino Caper is the uncredited cover artwork. The back cover features art as well, this time illustrating the climax, where the Indian’s goons chase after Dev. Also note how the back cover copy makes the novel sound a whole lot better than it actually is!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jason Striker #2: Mistress Of Death

Jason Striker #2: Mistress Of Death, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes
July, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

The first volume of the Jason Striker series was a clunky Enter the Dragon sort of riff with a few bizarre moments, but this second one is full-on lurid pulp...already within the first several pages we have hero/narrator Striker brutally kicked in the crotch by a towering black Amazon; he wakes up in the hospital after groin surgery to find himself being seduced by an already-nude 16 year-old girl named Amalita, but they’re attacked by orange-eyed, drug-fueled "demons" who raid the hospital room; a fight which sees a bedpan used as a weapon (complete with gross descriptions of urine and feces splatting all over people), after which our hero screws the 16 year-old girl! Did I mention he took her virginity in the previous volume, back when she was only 15?? Man these '70s men's adventure series knew no limits, and that’s just how I like them.

One thing Mistress of Death shares with its predecessor is a shall we say loose approach to plotting. This book jumps all over the damn place, so that it comes off like a series of unrelated snapshots. The grounding theme is a new drug called Kill-13 which is basically like speed for martial arts fighters. Addiction comes quick and users are turned into orange-eyed “demons” who will fight to the death; currently they are carving out their own brutal kingdom in Striker’s still-unspecified home town, all of this occurring “a little over a year” after the first volume.

As for any pick-up from that previous book, there’s hardly any. Amalita is the only recurring character, and as we’ll recall she’s the niece of Vincente Pedro, Striker’s nemesis-turned comrade. Oddly enough, Pedro apparently died on the last page of the previous volume, but we are informed here that not only is he still alive but he’s married Amalita, and they now have a child – though Amalita makes it pretty clear that the boy is actually Striker’s. She also says that Pedro would have Striker killed if he ever found out.

Amalita has a fatal attraction for our boy, though, which turns out pretty badly for Chiyako, a cute Chinese kung-fu lady Striker meets soon after getting out of the hospital – and yes, Chiyako is Chinese despite having a Japanese name! Same for her father, Choji Kija; Amalita has come to the US with the man’s name, as a possible contact Striker could look up to help fight the Kill-13 menace. But this is actually a cheap narrative trick to tie together these various plots, as the old man turns out to have no knowledge of Kill-13 other than the easily-grasped understanding of how destructive it is, both to the user and to society.

Meanwhile we have a long flashback to Striker’s days in Vietnam, where he planted electronic homing signals for bombers…he was captured by VC and tosed in a camp…but he escaped by murdering a girl who turned out to have been there to rescue him…he ends up with monks who train him in kung-fu (suspiciously enough, none of this was mentioned in the previous volume during Striker’s long digressions on kung-fu)…the monks send him on his way and only later does dumbass Striker realize he left his bombing beacon with them! Sure enough the monks get bombed and all of them die, something which Striker rightfully blames himself for to this very day…but damned if I didn’t find it all pretty hilarious. I mean, isn’t that part of everyone’s standard checklist before leaving the house? Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Electronic bomb-homing device? Check.

Anyway, Striker and Chiyako hit it off while the old man’s out tracking down Kill-13 leads. They end up making it on the dojo’s floor, Striker discovering after the fact that the girl was a virgin, thus bringing his score up to two. But soon it all becomes like a kung-fu soap opera as Amalita comes out of nowhere, engages Chiyako in some verbal sparring, and then the two go at it in a full-bore catfight! This whole sequence is bizarre, but nonetheless entertaining, as the two women fight, Amalita mercilessly so; she smashes a bottle and carves up Chiyako’s left breast, after which Striker finally does something about the whole mess and trounces Amalita, demanding that she return to her husband.

The snapshot storytelling continues as next we go into the long, third-person storyline of Ilunga, the black kung-fu “mistress of death” who nearly unmanned Striker in the opening pages. Her sob story has it that, having been raped so many times as a teen during her walks through a notorious park, she took up kung-fu as a means to get vengeance. Soon she became notorious herself, for hiding in the park and kicking would-be rapists in the crotch, destroying their manhoods!! Getting wind of the hot new Kill-13 drug, Ilunga checks it out as a means to give her more combat power. Soon she’s not only an addict but high in the city’s demon network.

Choji Kija implores Striker to not just consider Ilunga a villain, due to her sad tale, but when Striker confronts her it leads to the inevitable fight. And the fight leads to the inevitable seduction scene, as Ilunga, despite hating men in general, tells Striker as he pins her that she lusts for his “white prick!” I should mention at this point Chiyako’s been captured by the demons, who hold her for ransom, demanding that Striker join them or else. So Striker accepts Ilunga’s offer…sex for info: Ilunga knows where Chiyako might be held, but she wants some quality time with Striker in exchange. (The authors by the way never write any actual sex scenes, always prudishly cutting to the next scene.)

The next plot-jump has Striker venturing back down to Honduras, where he reunites with Vincente Pedro, who understands how nuts his wife Amalita can be, and also ensures Striker that Pedro’s son is not really Striker’s son. Together these two try to track down the Kali cult behind Kill-13, Striker finding out about the worship of the goddess after fighting Ilunga’s superior to the death back in the US.

One thing that becomes more clear with each page is that, when it comes to anything but the martial arts, Jason Striker is a complete idiot. The guy just bumbles around, making countless mistakes, and is even an idiot about things he should know about – when launching a raid on the demons’s Kill-13 factory (which is located inside a lost Mayan pyramid), Striker wonders if they can use grenades to blow the place up. Pedro has to inform him that grenades are solely “man-killing devices,” and would be no use in blowing up the facility. Remember, Striker was a Green Beret in Vietnam.

After this Striker breaks off on his own again, still searching for Chiyako. There follows this arbitrary, pages-filling sequence where an earthquake hits this part of South America and Striker holes up in an abandoned building, biding his time. This whole part is just a head-scratcher in how unecessary it is. Finally Striker gets the lockdown on the mysterious leader of the Kill-13 sect, a well-muscled Shaw Brothers type named Kan-Sen, who has Chiyako captive in his villa.

The action goes through the roof as Stryker attempts to sneak into the place (including yet another gross and arbitrary bit involving feces where Striker, ever the dumbass, trips while sneaking through the sewer lines and ends up swallowing some of the filth!!) but is promptly discovered. He takes on a plethora of demons, and after an induced whiff of Kill-13 he becomes a killing machine. The authors give this sequence almost a psychedelic edge, as a deranged and hallucinating Striker kills with abandon. The gore factor is also quite high, with Striker even ripping out intestines and hurling the viscera at his opponents.

However it all leads to a depressing finale, with our hero half-dead and saved by Ilunga, who has come down here to help him – she fights alongside Striker during the climax and to his Kill-13 addled eyes appears like Kali. Ilunga is now set up to be an important character in the series, which is cool because she’s definitely a Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu type of character. She’s also smarter than our narrator, given that she figures out how to destroy her competitors in the Kill-13 cult and corner the drug’s market for herself.

Anyway, this series, while goofy and haphazardly plotted, is still a lot of fun, mostly due to its heaping helpings of bell bottom fury.

Monday, October 21, 2013

An Interview with Stephen Mertz

A big thanks to Stephen Mertz for doing this interview – Stephen should need no introduction, as he’s had a huge impact on the men’s adventure genre over the years. In this interview he discusses his early days working with Don Pendleton, his years with Gold Eagle, the creation of the MIA Hunter series and others…and the promising tidbit that there might be more Mark Stone adventures on the way!

Tell us about yourself – how did you get into writing, and what were you doing before?

I was born a writer. Started scribbling stories when I was 13 and never stopped. Broke away from the 9-to-5 day job world 40 years ago and have been living by my wits on back roads ever since. I’m a musician, so I’ve fronted blues bands. Managed a resort for a summer, owned a secondhand bookshop in a small mountain town and ran a used record shop in a big city. Spent much of the ‘70s and ‘80s on the road just to see what was around the next bend. Settled in Arizona. Always writing.

What was your first published work?

First pro sale was a short story in 1975. First novel was Some Die Hard, four years later. A private eye story. Rock Dugan's first and only appearance. Funny how many writers of my generation (Reasoner, Lansdale, Randisi, Shiner, etc) first emerged as private eye writers in the tradition handed down from Hammett, Chandler and Spillane. There's just something about that sort of poetic hardboiled stuff that got us, I guess. If you've never read Spillane, you must sample One Lonely Night; the first chapter of that one makes for a brilliant noir short story, and the novel itself vividly shows the literary (?!) roots of action/adventure.

How did you become involved with working with Don Pendleton?

I wrote Don a fan letter out of the blue after discovering the Executioner series in 1973. I received in return a most gracious and down to earth letter that invited a response. I revealed that I was an aspiring writer and Don offered to read the manuscript I was working on, which became Some Die Hard. He kept it for about a month, and then sent back a 6-page single-spaced critique, pointing out trouble areas in character, plot and pacing, and suggestions on how to remedy its considerable shortcomings. When the book appeared, I dedicated it to Don and in fact used a couple of his “suggestions” word-for-word.

What was the working relationship like with Don – what was an average day like working with him?

At first, not long after we connected, Don was looking for someone to help him with his 4-book-per year production schedule, which he found daunting. Don was a craftsman, not a human word machine, and in retrospect there seems in his career to be periods of high productivity and then times when he had to cool down and step back; of course, contractual deadlines have no respect for such artistic foibles. Don paid me to write a draft of Colorado Kill Zone to the best of my then-ability. I was still living in Denver at the time. When the job was done, he dutifully paid me, and then threw away everything I’d written and rewrote an entirely new novel, which is the one that was published, naturally. My only contribution to that book is its first sentence.

A few years later I was on one of my open-ended road trips and took Don up on his invitation to visit and hang out for a spell at Pendle Hill, his home in the rolling hills of Brown Country, Indiana. We got to know each other and became friends. That trip also later took me to Bakersfield, California (I did say those trips were open-ended), where Don had requested that I meet up with Mike Newton, another Bolan fan who had made contact with Don. Mike and I hit it off and not long after that, Don invited us both to resettle in Brown County where the plan was to produce Executioner novels as a team for Pinnacle. Mike and I plotted and wrote a draft of Cleveland Pipeline. We’d have weekly story conferences with Don, then Mike would go and write these scenes and I’d go write those scenes. Don then took what we’d written for the Cleveland book, used it as an outline, holed up in the A-frame he used for an office on Pendle Hill and rewrote the book word-for-word in about a week.

That was the coldest winter in Indiana since God was born, so come the first sign of spring, Mertz hightailed it back out west. Mike stayed on to write Arizona Ambush and Tennessee Smash, after which Don regained his stride and, on his own, wrote the remainder of the Pinnacle Executioner series.

What can you tell us about Don Pendleton the man? I’ve often read that he would “act out” scenes from his manuscripts in an effort to ensure realism; is this true?

Naw, that’s PR guff. He might have paced off positions to block out an action scene now and then, but most writers do that. I’ve heard the term Renaissance man bandied about often but hands down, Don Pendleton is the only true Renaissance man I ever knew. He was my mentor. A warm Arkansas drawl and chuckle offset eyes that glinted with steely Bolan resolve. A thinker of the first magnitude; a dynamic man, embodying all that word implies. A disciplined free spirit who could discuss Copernicus or the craft of writing and marketing commercial fiction with equal ease and enthusiasm. WWII and Korean War veteran, musician, philosopher, metaphysician, lover of life in all its many manifestations, and a gifted writer who created a genre, Don Pendleton was one hell of a guy. Anyone interested in Don or in his work will learn much about both from his book on writing, The Metaphysics of the Novel.

How did you become involved with Gold Eagle?

Don hooked me up with Harlequin’s Bolan program on the ground floor. I wrote 12 Bolan novels and one Mack Bolan short story.

What was it like, working with Gold Eagle?

It was fun at first. In the beginning Gold Eagle was concerned with sustaining the readership Don had built up to that time and so I saw myself in a sort of caretaker status, trying to preserve what Don had created. I worked hard on those Bolan books and one of them, Day of Mourning, is still ranked by the hardcore fans at as one of the top ten Bolan novels ever written (over the hundreds of other titles), thirty years after I wrote it.

It’s my understanding that Sylvester Stallone bought the rights to The Executioner #43: Return to Vietnam (July, 1982), which you wrote. Three years later, Rambo: First Blood Part II came out, bearing a similar storyline of Rambo freeing American POWs in Vietnam, yet you and Gold Eagle were not credited. Do you have anymore information on this situation, and did you ever hear what drew Stallone to this particular volume of the series?

Ahem, its quality, I would presume. At the time, Stallone owned screen rights to the entire series. At first everyone thought it was because he was going to make a Bolan movie but as it turned out, he just didn’t want anyone else making a Bolan movie that would compete with his Rambo interpretation; screen rights also allowed him to dip into the GE novels for source material. Given my respect for the guy, and especially that second Rambo film which I feel is the best of the movies, I’ve always been proud that they chose one of my novels to draw from.

I’ve heard that when Don Pendleton was having trouble with Gold Eagle, you came to his defense. Could you shed some light on this situation, and what all was going on?

I’m no lawyer and you’re talking 30 years ago but off the top of my head, it went like this. When Don sold the Bolan franchise to Gold Eagle, apparently the contract included a non-competition clause; i.e., Don could not write action adventure novels for anyone else. Well, Don was a writer and writers write, so sometime in the mid 1980s, his agent placed the Ashton Ford, Psychic Detective series with a competing publisher. The pinheads at Harlequin decided this was a breech of the non-competition clause and took Don to court. In truth, for anyone out there who hasn’t read one, the Ashton Ford novels are paranormal New Age allegories involving flying saucers, time travel, metaphysics, and stuff like that. There aren’t even action scenes in the books! But as I recall it, GE’s position was that there are only two types of fiction, romance and adventure, and since the Ford books weren’t romance novels, they were obviously adventure novels and therefore violated the terms of the contract. It was a greedy, nasty thing for a publisher to do. They were basically trying to keep Don from ever writing and selling again. Anyway, he needed a wingman and I was privileged to join the team. I flew back to NYC and testified in court as to the specific elements of action adventure, which clearly did not apply to the Ashton Ford books. Long story short, Don won what was essentially a nuisance suit. Naturally, my participation lowered the curtain on my work for GE but I was glad to go. I’m a restless sort. I’d gone into the program promising myself that I’d write no more than ten of the things and I ended up writing twelve because the money was good. In those days, Mack Bolan authors received a cut of the royalties, unlike today. But I’d grown bored being someone else’s product.

Please share some insight into the origins of the MIA Hunter series. It was always my assumption that it was intended to capitalize on the “POW-rescue” aspect of First Blood Part II, but it would seem that the series was already planned and being written a year or so before that film even came out.

That Bolan novel, Return to Vietnam, pretty much knocked people out when it first appeared. The book was a tremendous success and made several trade bestseller lists. An editor at Berkley saw the potential and asked me to sketch the MIA concept as the basis for a series. They liked Mark Stone, Terrance Loughlin and Hog Wiley, and so The MIA Hunter was born. By the way, those books ended up resonating with a broad audience of readers beyond the general men’s series readership. In the 1980s, there was a genuine concern among many that there were living American MIA/POWs left behind after the end of the Vietnam War. Anecdotal evidence kept filtering out that we’d left men behind who were still alive, though nothing ever materialized to the best of my knowledge. You can still see the black MIA/POW flags flying.

MIA Hunter wrapped up right around the time the genre was dying so ignobly, so I'm curious if Mark Stone's adventures ended or if you got word from the publisher that the series was over and thus never wrote a final volume?

It was the ever-changing marketplace what done in the original MIA Hunter series. This is why I’m so jazzed about the whole ebook revival of Mark Stone. He will remain at the age when he’s in his physical prime, in the time honored tradition of Mack Bolan, Mike Shayne, etc.

While The MIA Hunter was being published you were also writing the Cody’s Army series, correct? What was the background on that series?

That would be John Cody, honcho of a badass commando unit operating with White House sanction; Cody’s men are Richard Caine the Brit and big Rufe Murphy. Those boys kicked it for several books but they never did catch on like The MIA Hunter. I wrote the Cody books as “Jim Case,” and they’re all available under that name as ebooks. Cody’s my second string guy; good, but he’s no Mark Stone. With both series, I brought in co-writers to help when the deadline grind got to be, well, too much of a grind; pretty much for the same reason that Don had originally brought me into the fold. I’ve always admired, and sometimes envied, those prolific writers who seem to effortlessly turn out a dozen or more books every year, but I’ve never been able to do that. For a couple of years there I was as much a book packager as I was a writer. I was buying time, using income from the series work to subsidize development of my first “real” novel, Blood Red Sun (i.e., the first hardcover published under my own name).

What other series fiction did you work on in the ‘80s and ‘90s?

There was a two-book Vietnam deal called The Tunnel Rats, a couple of westerns in the Trailsman series, some ghost work that I can’t cop to. Contract writing paid the bills and, as I say, subsidized more ambitious, less formula-bound work efforts.

What led you to make the decision to leave series fiction/ghostwriting and to write and publish under your own name?

I hooked up with Writers Digest Magazine as an instructor in their on-line writers’ workshop program, which has really been rewarding at several levels. I’m able to share what I know about the craft with new writers, and the income that provides freed me up to get off the series treadmill. I now write mostly without those looming deadlines. This strategy has hardly made me a brand name author, but I have managed to sell everything I’ve written and for the most part I’ve been published to good reviews, so I’ll take that. Not that I’ve in any way lost my affection for pulp fiction. Since leaving the series field I’ve written a couple of short stories that are pure pulp. I mean, does it get any pulpier than “The Lizard Men of Blood River?” With my own work, the intent is to retain the vigor and immediacy of pulp fiction while delivering more than formula cliché in terms of character and plot.

Which of your own novels, both standalone and series, stand out in your own mind, and why?

The Castro Directive, my latest, is available from Crossroad Press in paper and ebook format. I suspect most writers of my generation have a Kennedy book in them and this is mine. It’s about the Bay of Pigs. A reviewer called it, “a kick-ass history lesson.” I like the sound of that. Of the others, Hank & Muddy comes straight from the heart: Hank Williams and Muddy Waters bump into each other one August night in Shreveport in 1952. Misadventures ensue. I guess that’s my favorite so far. Two others that did pretty much what I wanted them to would be Blood Red Sun, a WWII thriller, and Night Wind, a novel of dark suspense. Of the series work, an MIA Hunter novel, L.A. Gang War, is the best.

What projects are you currently working on?

Writing-wise, I’ve just finished a novel about Jimi Hendrix. As for the writing business, I’m busy promoting The Castro Directive and the resurgence of interest in the MIA Hunter, thanks to Crossroad Press republishing the series as ebooks (except for the three I wrote with Joe R. Lansdale, which will be published together as an omnibus from Subterranean Press). I’m enthused about the vibrancy of the ebook market and if the current demand keeps up, there will be new Mark Stone adventures to come. Stay tuned for details…

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Cross-Country, by Herbert Kastle
December, 1975  Dell Books

This was Herbert Kastle's last hardcover book for a few years, at least here in the States; after this novel he was relegated to paperback originals (until Ladies of the Valley, which came out in hardcover in 1979). Which is fine by me, as I much prefer paperbacks. But anyway at least Cross-Country was a memorable way to go out, Kastle returning to his crime fiction roots but leavening the tale with the hot and heavy sex scenes he’d been writing since 1968 in his steamy, Harold Robbins-style potboilers.

The novel opens with the discovery of Judith Keel’s mutilated corpse – Keel, a gorgeous blonde who worked as an assistant in an ad agency, has been hacked up in horrible fashion in her Manhattan apartment, her severed arms chained to the headboard of her bed and her body tossed on the floor and further desecrated. From this we jump to Evan Bley, a top ad man at the agency Keel worked for, and Kastle immediately lets us know that this guy likely killed Judith; Evan’s stopping off in a topless bar for a quick drink before getting in his Jaguar and leaving New York forever.

But Evan’s picked up by a stacked brunette with an Australian accent; the lady is named Lois, and she instantly deduces that Evan’s planning to ditch town and she wants to go with him, especially when Evan informs her he’s planning a cross-country drive to Los Angeles. After getting bombed out on the bar’s potent drinks, Evan wakes to find himself sprawled out on the backseat of his own car, Lois in the passenger seat…and some bearded freak behind the wheel. This turns out to be John, Lois’s ex-boyfriend, and thus begins the major twisted thread of this twisted novel.

In one of the most brazen acts of coincidence I’ve ever read in a novel, Kastle gradually reveals that, unbeknownst to one another, each of these strangers knew Judith Keel. Thus, since each of them have shady, lawless backgrounds and insane tendencies, each of them are actually suspects as Keel’s murderer. Before we get to that though we have a long, tense sequence in which they keep going up against one another, Evan feeling like he’s been swindled, what with the sudden appearance of John, who comes off like a creep who’s planning to steal Evan’s car and/or slash his throat while Evan’s sleeping. Kastle is a dark comedy master and this sequence is filled with it, as Evan and John keep trying to one up one another.

Meanwhile we are introduced to the hero of the tale, such as he is: Detective Eddie Roersch of the NYPD, a 30+ year veteran of the force who, at a heavyset and weathered 55, feels like life has passed him by and that he’ll never get the recognition or the pay he deserves. Despite having more collars than any other detective in his precinct, Roersch has never been promoted to Lieutenant, let alone Captain.

Beyond the job Roersch’s personal life is in disarray, given the death seven months ago of his wife of three decades. Not that Kastle makes much of Roersch’s widowhood; he’s already sort of moved on, scoring sex from a high-class hooker named Ruthie who happens to live on the same floor as Roersch’s Manhattan apartment. In exchange for not busting her Ruthie gives Roersch freebies, but over these past few months Roersch has found himself thinking of Ruthie as more than just a free lay.

Assigned the Keel case, Roersch very quickly deduces that Evan Bley is the top suspect. The majority of the Roersch sections follow a police procedural format, with Roersch tracking clues and leads. Soon enough he has what he figures is a cut and dry case against Bley. But this is a Kastle novel, and there are no white hats; seeing as how wealthy Bley is, Roersch decides that instead of tracking him down and arresting him, Roersch will instead build a solid case against Bley, find him, and tell him he can either go to the chair or pay Roersch a few hundred thousand dollars, and Bley will go free.

Evan Bley, though, is pretty sick. Not really sick, but tormented, having grown up with an overbearing mother who burned a permanent scar into young Evan, having once discovered him masturbating in the bathroom. In one of those bizarre yet (darkly) humorous scenes he excels in, Kastle has the mom go apeshit, beating young Evan and then, believe it or not, pulling down her skirt and graphically showing him that it’s her time of the month and blaming it all on him! Well, you won’t be surprised to know that this has had some definite ramifications on Evan, who nonetheless considers himself a “monster.” Kastle himself builds a pretty damning case against Bley as being Judith Keel’s murderer, but Bley’s fellow passengers are screwed up too.

John has his own sob story background: he’s from a wealthy background but has been drifting around the country for the past decade. In another dark comedy flashback we see how when John was a young boy his dad went balistic when he found out that John’s mom was sleeping around, a crazed scene that sees a poor dog kicked around until it’s hamburger. Lois too is fucked up, being raped by her father when a teenager and from there finding brief comfort in the arms of other women; but lesbian affairs are completely against her nature, she constantly chastizes herself. Having been in the States for the past few years she makes her meager living dancing in bars or working in massage parlors, but she dreams of becoming a famous actress. When she finds out that Evan has contacts in the industry, she latches on to him.

What’s weird is how Kastle builds a familial relationship for these three whackjobs. First though there’s the tension, both of the danger and the sexual variety; Lois coming on to Evan, much to John’s frustration. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, given how Lois so brazenly rubs it in his face that she’s over him and now wants Evan – who is not only better looking and in better shape, but has more money and a bigger dick. In fact Evan’s size is often brought up, particularly in the first of several highly graphic sex scenes between him and Lois – as I wrote above, Kastle with this novel returned to the crime fiction genre he’d written in the early ‘60s, but here he’s free to give vent to his most explicit ideas. There’s some hardcore stuff throughout Cross-Country, and no detail is spared.

As the trio moves on through the Midwest they become closer, Lois feeling like the glue that holds them all together (sometimes literally). But she’s moved on from John and wants Evan for herself, so in another lurid sequence they manage to pick up an attractive but stupid redneck girl named Alma-Jean, who works in a clothing store. More drinking, drugs, and group sex ensues, but Lois, who has lesbian tendencies she tries to subdue, loses control of herself on the girl.

Another demonstration of Kastle’s skill, this sequence goes from erotica to horror as it devolves into bad vibes all around, Lois storming off and Alma-Jean hitting the road, sick of these “freaks,” with John trying to find her before she can get away. Kastle plays this game throughout where we know that one of the trio is a murderer, but which one? They all have their issues, and they all have their chances in the narrative to commit murder – and sure enough, later on we learn that Alma-Jean’s mutilated body has been discovered in a dumpster outside the hotel, and it could’ve been any one of the three who killed her.

Roersch, still in New York, begins to doubt his blackmail scheme, once news of Alma-Jean’s death comes to him. This means that, along with Judith Keel and two other murdered girls, four people have been killed by Bley (Roersch’s only suspect; he doesn’t even know about Lois or John), and how could Roersch live with himself if he allowed a monster like that to escape justice? Meanwhile Roersch goes on with his life, finding that his feelings for Ruthie, the hooker next door, have increased to the point where he wants the blackmail money from Bey so as to provide a better life for her and her prepubescent daughter.

Cross-Country is more of a slow burn affair, and lacks the dynamic characterization and plotting of Ladies of the Valley. It is however a much darker tale (believe it or not), with practically every character fucked up to some degree. But the writing is as strong as ever, with Kastle fully bringing his rejects to life; he remains locked in each perspective when featuring each character, and brings you enough into their worlds that you can at least understand them, if not like them. Save for Lois, who comes off as more self-centered and annoying in her sequences, and I get the feeling Kastle had a hard time writing about her, as there isn’t much there.

The action only picks up toward the climax, when Roersch feels he’s successfully put together his case (after visits with Roersch’s still-domineering mother, now old and alone, as well as a private eye named McKenney, who tailed Judith Keel for Bley) and heads for a confrontation with the man in the Grand Canyon, having got hold of Bley’s planned travel route through AA (Bley being a member). But we see that it’s all come to a head for our depraved trio, as well, as during another group sex session things again become nightmarish, with bad vibes leading to a startling but expected bit where John buggers Evan – who despite his shock realizes he enjoys it.

Please skip this paragraph if you don’t want the novel’s surprise spoiled. As mentioned above, Evan, John, and Lois could each have been the murderer of Judith Keel, as well as poor Alma-Jean and some other women back in New York. Gradually though I figured out which of the three it was, mostly due to a bit of foreshadowing Kastle delivers early in the book; Roersch, considering the horrible nature of the Keel murder, figures it had to have been a man behind it, as female murders of such brutality are few. He can only think of the Countess Bathory. From this I soon figured Kastle was foreshadowing that Lois was actually Keel’s murderer (and all the other girls besides). And Lois does indeed turn out to be the killer, as revealed at the very end. As yet another example of his writing skill, you can go back to the sequences from Lois’s POV and see how Kastle has so masterfully left clues therein. But my problem here is that after this reveal Lois immediately “acts crazy,” blithely recounting her murderous deeds to Roersch as she perches above a chasm in the Grand Canyon. The way her character acts here in the climax is so separate from how she acted throughout the rest of the novel that it comes off like a cheap cop-out; however Kastle does cover himself by having Lois already feeling a sort of psychotic break thanks to discovering Evan’s homosexual tendencies the night before. Now learning that Bley’s a “goddamn closet queen,” her hopes for Hollywood stardom are dashed, and she’s gone around the bend. But still, it comes off as too much, too late.

This was the first of a loose trilogy featuring Roersch; he appeared in Kastle’s next two novels, both of them as mentioned paperback originals: The Gang (1976) and Death Squad (1977). Finally, there was a film adaptation of Cross-Country, released in 1983; there’s no DVD, but it came out on VHS (glad I still have a VCR player!). One of these days I might check it out, just to see how far it strays from Kastle’s novel – one thing I do know is they changed it so that Judith Keel was Bley’s wife, which I guess they thought would add more tension and suspense.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Marksman #7: Slaughterhouse

The Marksman #7: Slaughterhouse, by Frank Scarpetta
December, 1973  Belmont-Tower Books

Peter McCurtin returns as “Frank Scarpetta” for another entry in the Marksman series, another one that’s super-heavy on action but barebones on plot and character. Unusually enough this one actually has a bit of background for Philip Magellan – another indicator that editor McCurtin was behind the tale. Overall though Slaughterhouse wears you down with endless action sequences.

As revealed in the previous volume (also courtesy McCurtin), Magellan has his roots in a carnival, where he was a trickshot artist. This volume opens with Magellan in St. Louis (again there is absolutely no pickup from previous books or any sense of continuity), where on the first page he bumps into young Tommy Brady, the son of Wild Bill Brady, aka the man who taught Magellan how to shoot all those years ago.

Wild Bill’s been laid up in the hospital due to a stroke for the past few years, but Tommy and his mom now run a carnival in nearby Florissant, Missouri. And wouldn’t you know it, the friggin’ mafia has been giving them trouble! Out of a sense of obligation to the old man, Magellan tells Tommy he’ll help him out. It should be mentioned that throughout the tale Tommy Brady has no idea who Magellan is these days, and indeed appears to have never even heard of the Marksman.

The carnage begins posthaste as Magellan and Tommy come across a pair of goons as they’re trying to cut the lines that hold up the main tent of the carnival. Needless to say, Magellan blows them both away, McCurtin really going to town on the gun-porn. There’s lots and lots of firearm and ammunition detail strewn throughout Slaughterhouse, and the gore factor is there as well, with plentiful descriptions of how bullets impact bodies.

The goons work for the infamous Morelli brothers (Giorgio and Lupi), who along with their underlings Vito Guardi and Tony Mambo run St. Louis. Vito Guardi appears to have had a run-in with Magellan in the past; at least this is inferred in the narrative, but it’s done so clunkily that I couldn’t tell if McCurtin meant it happened in an earlier volume or if Guardi is speaking of something that happened earlier in this volume. Anyway Guardi’s name seems familiar, but honestly these mobster names run together after a while, so I don’t know.

Given the tie-in with Magellan’s history, I figured Slaughterhouse might have a little more character or backstory, but gradually I realized the stuff with Tommy Brady and the carnival was just a convenient framework around which McCurtin could weave a plethora of endless action scenes. There isn’t even a reunion with Wild Bill Brady, and Tommy’s mom buys it in a scene where the mob comes back to the carnival when Magellan and Tommy are gone.

Instead the novel is all about action, to the point where it gets tiresome. The plot is basically this: Magellan runs into Tommy. Magellan tells Tommy he will kill the mobsters who are troubling him. Magellan proceeds to do so. That’s pretty much it. There are several elaborate action scenes, with Magellan unfazed throughout, but after a big confrontation with Giorgio Morelli (in which the mobster gets wasted) Tommy is captured.

Rather than play out the suspense angle, McCurtin instead has Magellan instantly figure out where Tommy is being held captive, climb into a building across from where the thugs have conveniently placed him in front of a window, and then blow away the guards. After which Magellan ropes over into the building and he and Tommy proceed to blow away all of the mobsters within!

McCurtin also fills a lot of pages with meaningless dialog sequences, like one interminable chapter that’s made up of banal conversation among the Morelli brothers and their underlings. Curiously enough there’s no sleaze in Slaughterhouse, and Tommy’s mother is the sole female character. The book is almost like an ‘80s version of the men’s adventure genre, in that it’s all about gun-porn and gore.

Anyway it all resolves exactly as you’d expect, with Magellan ruthlessly blowing away the surviving Morelli brother with his .44 Magnum, and then telling Tommy “see ya” before hitting the road. Like the other installments McCurtin has written, Slaughterhouse isn’t burdened by continuity – or much of anything, other than endless gun fights. However the Ken Barr cover is awesome!!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Killing Of RFK

The Killing Of RFK, by Donald Freed
September, 1975  Dell Books

The JFK assassination gets all of the attention, but I’ve always been more interested in the assassination of RFK. With its “lone gunman” who to this day can’t remember pulling the trigger, allegations of MKUltra brainwashing, obvious LAPD coverup, and most compelling of all the infamous Lady in the Polka Dot Dress, the June 1968 murder of Bobby Kennedy is just downright weird.

This paperback original from Dell (my favorite publisher, by the way) is courtesy Donald Freed, a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who previously co-authored a similar work on JFK, titled Executive Action. Some day I plan to read it, as I’m sure there are elements in The Killing Of RFK that reflect back to that earlier work. This novel opens on June 7th, 1968, the day after RFK’s death (he was shot after 12AM, June 5th, but died on the 6th), and as Ted Kennedy delivers a televised eulogy we meet our two ostensible protagonists, Paul Woods and Judith Shankman.

Paul, a black ex-Secret Service agent who was part of JFK’s retinue but fired after 1963 due to his allegations that the assassination was part of a conspiracy, now works as “Public Relations” for RFK. His job, we learn as the novel unfolds, is basically to provide clandestine back-up security. He’s also in love with Judith Shankman, a white former radical (or somesuch) who previously backed Hubert Humphrey. How she met Paul and indeed what exactly she brings to this tale is something Freed doesn’t really provide much detail on.

We then flash back to April, 1968; the novel never returns to the June 7th section, thus the opening pages of the novel are also the narrative’s end. (I even re-read this section after finishing the book, to see if it provided any hints of what was in store for our protagonists, but really it doesn’t.) These early chapters are very heavy in late ‘60s politics, and some of the names dropped were from before my time. However Freed captures the feel of the era, with Paul and Judith swept up in the idealism of RFK’s candidacy. Kennedy himself rarely appears in the narrative, and when he does it’s only from a distance, or on TV or radio.

Gradually Freed breaks away from these two charactes and weaves in the darker material we’ve come for. This presents itself in the creepy character of William A. Must, Jr, another former intelligence agent who now is also a self-styled “public relations” worker. Freed never outright states who gives Must his orders, his funding, or who indeed he now works for, but we do eventually learn that he was formerly CIA and was part of the task force that killed JFK. In fact we eventually learn that the Kennedy brothers actually created the task force that caused their own deaths; agents who were selected to take part in the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco. After that fell through, this contingent of CIA agents went rogue and first took out JFK, now setting their sights on RFK, mostly to keep him from re-investigating his brother’s murder.

Must has already selected his patsy, a Palestinian immigrant with occult leanings. Interestingly enough, Sirhan Sirhan is never named in the novel; he’s always referred to by the codename Must gives him, “Saladin.” And yes, Freed puts quotation marks around the name every single time he writes it! Must’s never-outright-stated plan is to brainwash Saladin into wanting to kill RFK, and to do so Must blackmails a gorgeous behavioral psychologist (with a brick shithouse bod, naturally) named Helen Dukemejian.

The most interesting character by far, Helen will become the Lady in the Polka Dot Dress. She’s 30, of Armenian descent, and grew up in war-torn Europe. Now she works in UCLA’s Violence Research Center (which doesn't exist in reality, though I read somewhere that one was planned to be built in the early '70s), where she carries out some pretty twisted experiments on test subjects both animal and human. Helen has done work for the CIA in the past, though against her will; they use her, basically, and gradually Must reveals to her that this is because Helen’s decades-missing father was a member of the infamous Ustaci, a Croatian terrorist group with fascist leanings. Helen’s father has been captured in Sweden, and the only thing that could exonerate him would be for the Agency to reveal that he was a double agent…something, Must assures her, the CIA would be just thrilled to do, in exchange for Helen carrying out this little project for them.

One of the more creepy aspects of the RFK puzzle is, if Sirhan really was brainwashed into his actions, then how in the world did the CIA pick him? That to me is one of the weirdest things…if they could pick some anonymous, penniless immigrant to become their patsy, then no one is safe. (In an interesting bit early on, Freed has it that before finding Sirhan Must had a black patsy pegged, but the man went rogue and escaped.) Helen insinuates herself into Saladin’s life, posing as a co-ed who herself is into the occult and etc, and posthaste Saladin’s fallen for the “stacked” brunette.

The narrative gets a bit lopsided, as previously Paul Woods and Judith Shankman were the stars of the show, but they basically disappear for a long stretch as Freed focuses on this storyline, which, truth be told, is more compelling. After breaking down Saladin’s emotional barriers (and it takes Helen a few tries to get him to sleep with her, due to how introverted and innocent he is) Helen moves on to the actual brainwashing and political invective. Sex, drugs, hypnotism, and Clockwork Orange-style film subjection are the tools at Helen’s disposal, and within a few weeks she has almost succeeded in creating a regular Manchurian Patsy.

Must meanwhile puts together his hit team; one of them is a former ‘Nam Green Beret named James Jerrold, who unfortunately disappears soon after being introduced into the narrative. But this happens throughout and at times Freed has a tough time juggling his large cast of characters. And also to note, The Killing Of RFK is much heavier on dialog and character and scene-setting, with very little action. However Freed is good at setting up scenes, of getting us into the heads of his characters (even Must’s, who despite being the villain has his own reasons for doing what he does).

The stuff with Saladin’s programming almost could come out of The Mind Masters; even Helen’s initial meeting with Must at the Violence Research Center is like something by John Rossmann, only slightly less expository. Must pressures Helen to move faster, as he wants RFK dead within a certain timeframe. This leads to the infamous Sirhan notebook entry where Helen asks a hypnotized and drugged Saladin about RFK, and Saladin sits and scrawls “RFK must die” over and over again.

Freed also incorporates known elements from the conspiracy, like the fact that Sirhan was seen in the days before the assassination in various places, from a gun shop to various gun ranges, always in the presence of “Arabic”-looking men; Freed has it that these are agents who work for “The Arab,” another of Must’s functionaries, and one who takes over Saladin when Must deems that Helen’s brain-programming isn’t proceeding fast enough.

When we get back to Paul and Judith, they’re still part of “the Candidate’s” whirlwind tour of the states as he makes his way to Los Angeles for the primaries. Paul has made contact with an FBI agent who, after pinning down Must as the man who put a “superbug” on Kennedy’s phone, manages to stumble upon Saladin and Helen at an RFK rally. He immediately suspects something strange about them, Saladin and his glassy eyes in particular. (Also, this dude reveals the fact that Must was the guy who posed as Oswald in Mexico.)  

Finally everything converges on the night of June 4, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. Must’s team is here in various disguises, posing as hotel workers and such, while Helen, in a polka dot dress, leads around a dazed and hypnotized Saladin. Curiously Freed makes Helen’s choice of the polka dot dress arbitrary, merely mentions she’s wearing it, when by all accounts it must’ve had something to do with Sirhan’s programming. The several witnesses of the infamous polka dot dress lady all said that the dress was rather weird looking, frumpy almost, and not at all flattering to what was otherwise described as a very pretty, very “built” lady. (But then, Freed also makes no mention of the strange story of John Fahey, a man who claims he spent the day of June 4th with the polka dot dress woman – and those who toss off his story as a tall tale are stymied when they discover that a sketch artist made a drawing of the lady’s face under Fahey’s descriptions, and when this drawing was later shown to Vincent DiPierro, a man who saw the polka dot lady closeup on the night of June 4th, DiPierro said the drawing was identical to the woman he saw standing beside Sirhan.)

Freed ramps up the tension here, as Paul sends Judith upstate to get a drawing of Saladin from his FBI contact, all of this going down during the primary festivities. Meanwhile a zombiefied Saladin stumbles about the Ambassador, Helen guiding him – Freed doesn’t go into Sirhan’s hypnosis-derived memories of pouring coffee for a pretty “Armenian” woman in a polka dot dress who asked for lots of cream and sugar (likely the trigger phrase that activated Sirhan, as this is his last memory until after RFK was shot) and then lead him “into a dark place.” Instead Freed has Saladin already hypnotized fully into kill mode, even though he’s not intended to be the actual assassin – but, as Must says, if Saladin actually does manage to shoot Kennedy, so much the better.

Of course Judith gets back too late to give the drawing of Saladin to Paul, and besides the Ambassador is filled to capacity with cheering throngs. Freed closes the novel with the assassination, with Saladin firing madly while Must’s top agent closes in and fires directly into the back of Kennedy’s head. After which Helen flees from the scene, screaming “We’ve shot him!” in horror, which again goes against the grain of the many eyewitnesses, who claimed that the lady in the polka dot dress yelled out this phrase happily, like she was celebrating RFK’s death. More upsetting though is that Freed doesn’t let us know what happens to Helen – does Must reunite her with her father, per his promise? Or does Must have her taken out, a possibility he intimates to one of his cronies, given that “the woman knows too much?”

But then, Freed leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps his way of mirroring in fiction the enigma that is the RFK assassination, a puzzle that has even more layers than the more famous JFK assassination. Now, as for the book’s style and quality. Freed’s writing is very good, though at times he goes for more of a literary feel, getting in the heads of his characters and focusing more on their memories and impressions than the action. Unfortunately however Freed is a hardcore POV-hopper, so the reader’s left unsettled sometimes as the perspective switches between paragraphs (sometimes within the paragraph), jumping from one character to another. As for the trash quotient, it’s there moreso in the creepy feel of Helen’s brainwashing of Saladin, but Freed does sleaze it up a bit in the two sex scenes between them, with lots of mentions of “full breasts” and “wet thighs.”

Anyway, I really did enjoy The Killing Of RFK, mostly because I’d recently become re-interested in the RFK assassination after a period of several years, so the discovery of this book was fortuitous. Freed states in his acknowledgements that he’d spoken with police and government authorities who gave him information “off the record,” and a lot of what he writes does dovetail with what’s now known about the assassination, though he does leave some things out, likely because he was writing before they were revealed. (For example the revelation that the LAPD destroyed all evidence from the case, even photos that were taken of RFK while he was being shot!) But overall it was an entertaining novel – though there was never a film version, despite what the cover proclaims.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Hunter (Parker #1)

The Hunter, by Richard Stark
2008, University of Chicago Press
(Original publication 1962)

Several years ago I read two of Richard Stark’s/Donald Westlake’s Parker novels (Slayground and Plunder Squad); I enjoyed them enough that I intended to start reading the series from the start, but back then the books were difficult to come by. Now thanks to the Univeristy of Chicago Press, which began reprinting the series in full in 2008, the Parker series is easily obtained.

The Hunter is the beginning of the saga, and over the years the novel has been reprinted under the titles Point Blank and Payback, to tie in with the film adaptations (more of which below). It came out originally in 1962 as a cheap mass market paperback, and while these University of Chicago trade paperbacks are nice, the Parker books should’ve been reprinted by Hard Case Crime as mass market paperbacks with lurid cover paintings.

The funny thing about The Hunter is how standard it now seems, viewed through the prism of these decades of retreads and ripoffs. But it is a simple revenge story, only notable due to the fact that our “hero” is moreso a villain. Parker would normally be the bad guy in most other pulp tales, and much is made of how amoral and ruthless he is. I always chuckle when I read this; people who say how “ruthless” Parker is have obviously never read Bronson: Blind Rage. Now that is a ruthless protagonist!

We meet Parker as he returns to New York City for revenge against those who stabbed him in the back. We don’t get much backstory on the character, and famously we only get the one name, “Parker.” (I’ve noticed though that no one’s ever wondered if this is his first name!) Parker as everyone knows is a professional criminal, and gradually we learn that he was on an offshore job with his wife and an old business acquaintance named Mal when the latter double-crossed him and, blackmailing Parker’s wife into doing the deed, shot Parker down and left him for dead.

Parker tracks down his wife, Lynn, who now lives in a posh Manhattan apartment, paid for monthly by Mal. The reveal of how she turned on Parker is a little hard to buy. Long story short, Parker, his wife, Mal, and a few goons from the Outfit (as the mob is referred to in this series) pulled a swindle on some South American revolutionaries, stealing their weapons and loot. After the heist Mal forced Parker’s wife into shooting Parker, and she went along with it because she was afraid Mal would kill her. Just seems to me that she could’ve easily whispered Mal’s plot into Parker’s ear, but then I guess this was Stark’s subtle way of letting us know the woman is basically untrustworthy.

Parker’s reunion with his wife is unintentionally hilarious in how emotionless he is about it. Whereas the modern trend would be to sap up this part, probably with soap operatic arguing and fighting between the two, Parker basically makes fun of Lynn’s claim that she’s often tried to kill herself, and tells her to take more sleeping pills next time. And surprisingly enough she does, so that when Parker checks on her in her locked bedroom the next morning, she’s dead. After disposing of the corspe Parker continues tracking down Mal.

The Hunter almost follows the format of a police procedural, as Parker goes through leads and clues in his search for Mal. Occasionally Stark opens up the narrative by cutting over to Mal, and humorously enough the villain sparkles with more life than our “hero.” Mal is a slug of a man who double-crossed Parker so as to pay back the Outfit money he lost them back in the days when he worked for them. All of this was a gambit to be offered a new job with the Outfit, one Mal now has; he lives in a cushy Manhattan hotel which is owned by the mob, and he’s only kept Parker’s wife alive out of some sense of obligation.

The Outfit itself is pretty interesting; Stark presents the mob as basically a corporate enterprise, one whose executives sit around in opulent offices and order murders and other criminal acts with businesslike acumen. Mal is not very high on the totem pole. When he requests assistance from a higher-up, it’s like an employee going to a VP to fund a project. Instead Mal’s kicked out of his hotel and forced to go it alone, but he’s obviously no match for Parker.

Stark writes this sequence of Parker and Mal like a cat and mouse game, leading to its inevitable conclusion. We get a little more of Parker’s background when he meets up with a high-class hooker he was once involved with, one who provides him some help in locating Mal. No doubt due to the era, The Hunter is pretty tame so far as the sex goes, but Stark lets us know that Mal gets his kicks through s&m and is a little too rough with hookers.

It’s only after Mal is dispensed with that The Hunter kicks into gear, at least for me. Parker, still wanting the money owed him, goes to the Outfit to get back the money Mal gave them to pay his debt. This whole sequence is darkly humorous, as Carter, a high-level Outfit executive, informs Parker that no company in the world would do what Parker’s asking them to do. So Parker deals with this turn of events the only way he knows how: threatening and killing until he gets what he wants.

There are a handful of action scenes, but nothing on the level of a men’s adventure novel. Even the finale, in which the Outfit sends a veritable army of gunners after Parker to ambush him at the money pickup in a subway stop, is handled moreso with suspense. Parker easily spots each gunman and takes away his weapon, telling him to get on a departing train. The terseness of the action scenes matches the tone of the prose; Stark’s writing lives up to his name (well, pseudonym, I guess), only giving the most bare of details and rarely if ever getting into the heads of his characters.

What I most enjoyed about The Hunter was the dark comedy that ran throughout. Parker is at times so inhuman that it comes off as hilarious, and while he doesn’t have any one-liners he does have some comments that are pretty funny. But anyway while it didn’t blow me away, it’s easy to see how The Hunter could’ve come off so strong in earlier days, and at the very least it’s compelled me to read the rest of the Parker novels.

Now, as for the two film adaptations -- Point Blank from 1967 is a dreamlike, metaphysical take on The Hunter, very fractured and at times psychedelic. It greatly diverges from the novel.  Parker is “Walker” in this one, and he’s played by Lee Marvin, the perfect Parker if you ask me. Parker is “Walker” because Westlake wouldn’t provide the rights to use the character’s name unless the studio agreed to make a series of films. For whatever stupid reason the studio refused; personally I would’ve signed on the dotted line and hired Marvin to star in a film series that could’ve been the James Bond franchise of crime cinema. Anyway Point Blank is interesting in how it puts such an unusual spin on your typical pulp crime tale, and it's even more interesting that Walker doesn't actually kill anyone in the film -- his enemies die either by accident or due to events Walker sets in motion.  The longstanding theory about this movie is that it's all the dying dream of Walker, who lays half-dead in a prison cell as the film opens.  Director John Boorman adds a sort of psychedelic haze to the look and feel of the film, and it's definitely a movie that rewards multiple viewings, but I wouldn't say it's a satisfying film; it's much too cold and cerebral for that.

Payback is the other adaptation of The Hunter, and it exists in two versions: the theatrical release from 1999 and a Director’s Cut (retitled Payback: Straight Up) from 2006. I’ve never seen the theatrical cut and have no intention to. The Blu Ray for the Director’s Cut features a documentary which compares the two versions, and the theatrical cut looks stupid and dumbed down for modern audiences. The Director’s Cut meanwhile holds its own with early ‘70s crime films, and indeed takes place in the early ‘70s, though director Brian Helgeland doesn’t bang the viewer over the head with this fact. Mel Gibson as “Porter” is nearly as good as Lee Marvin – again, I’m only referring to the Director’s Cut, in which a stone-faced Gibson blitzes his way through the criminal underworld. There’s no cutesy stuff, no mugging for the camera, no “emotional content” bullshit. Hell, they even kill a dog in it. The film is very faithful to the source novel, only changing characters here and there (Lucy Liu’s character, for example) and adding new elements (like the Chinese gang and the crooked cops storyline).  Of the two film adaptations of The Hunter, I prefer Payback: Straight Up.   

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Without Mercy

Without Mercy, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1981  Zebra Books

The last novel to be published under his “Leonard Jordan” psuedonym, Without Mercy is yet another fine Len Levinson novel, once again bringing to life the seedy underworld of late ‘70s/early ‘80s New York City. It’s a thick novel, too, coming in at 312 pages – but with the big print and Len’s usual gift for storytelling you’ll blow right through this fast-moving tale.  (Also, it's recently been released as an Amazon-only ebook.)

The sordid story (which Len dedicates to Peter McCurtin, but Zebra screwed up and wrote “Peter McCurtien”) opens with a corpse found near Times Square, a murdered hooker who worked at a “massage parlor.” Detective Danny Rackman is on the case; Rackman is your typical Levinson protagonist, a down-on-his-luck sort with an ex-wife who still nags at him and a preteen daughter he rarely sees. The murdered girl turns out to be one Cynthia Doyle, a rather unattractive woman who worked with other downtrodden, unattractive women in a grimy massage parlor/whorehouse in Times Square.

Without Mercy follows the format of a police procedural for its first half, with Rackman tracking clues and questioning suspects. In a neat move we see Rackman on the murder scenes here in the opening half of the novel, before flashing back and seeing how the murders were carried out in the second half. Rackman though is very similar to Len’s take on Ryker, in that he’s an overworked and underpaid public servant who dreams of retiring into the good life some day. (In fact you could almost see this novel as sort of a sequel to Len’s The Terrorists.)

However Rackman is constantly a few steps behind this killer, soon nicknamed the Slasher by the press, his name derived from his fondess for slashing the throats of hookers or other sex workers around Times Square. The killings become more frequent and brutal as Rackman grasps straws trying to hunt down the murderer. He gets his biggest break when a bum comes across a jacket that matches the description of the one the Slasher was seen in, and here Levinson delivers a long and enjoyable sequence as the bum needs to be coaxed by Rackman into remembering anything of merit.

In fact the majority of Without Mercy is rendered in dialog, with Rackman having long conversations with his various witnesses and suspects. There really isn’t much action at all. Meanwhile Rackman tries to find the time for his estranged daughter, Sheila, but the sequence where he goes to visit her doesn’t lead up to much, despite heavy build-up. There’s also Rackman’s girlfriend, who wants to get serious with him and get married, and a recurring joke is that Rackman’s always asking her if she put in her diaphragm correctly – it seems she keeps “accidentally” putting it in wrong, likely in the hopes that Rackman will get her pregnant.

Eventually Rackman begins to see similarities between himself and the Slasher, as in they both obviously have difficulties with women, and he starts to see this killer as his own “dark half.” I found this element a little hard to buy, as Rackman is presented as too likable a person. Maybe if we saw that he was a dirty cop, or maybe if he kicked a puppy or two, maybe then I could buy into the “two sides of the same coin” motif Levinson tries to build between Rackman and the Slasher.

Around the halfway point the novel switches over to the point of view of the Slasher himself, and while the section with Rackman was enjoyable, this part is even better. Mostly because here Levinson delivers some very lurid material as he attempts to get inside the mind of a psycho. And also here he provides basically a walking tour of a Times Square that is long gone.

Frank Kowalchuk is a heavyset loser who barely makes a living as a cab driver in NYC; after various setbacks he’s now hanging by an emotional thread. When one evening he attempts to go into a massage parlor and is berated by the hooker (Cynthia Doyle) for being unable to get an erection, Kowalchuk finally snaps and begins to dream of murdering off all of the “dirty whores” who now pollute the streets of New York.

Soon enough Kowalchuk begins to enjoy killing, to the point where he drops out of his normal life as a cabdriver and lives on the streets, evading the cops that he knows will soon begin looking for him. He plots out his kills as he walks around Times Square, checking out all of the sex attractions. Levinson provides some very sordid stuff here, with long descriptions of the sex shows and hardcore films on display. And yet none of it is erotic, as the material and performers on display are so debased and worn out that they only appeal to the vermin who flock to these hellholes.

Kowalchuk doesn’t limit his murders to whores, though; in a jolting sequence he goes after a woman he dated a few years ago, a lady who refused to have sex with him. Kowalchuk abducts her on her way to work and, after forcing her to hand over all the money she “owes” him, he rapes her – only later do we learn that he slits her throat during the process, when the narrative switches back over to Danny Rackman.

Now our hero has become obsessed with tracking down the Slasher. There’s a bit of a narrative sleight as Rackman uses a female cop to try to ensnare Kowalchuk’s interest, but they end up finding him through good old-fashioned police work. Long story short, due to the photos circulated among the precincts, some beat cops spot Kowalchuk as he tries to stop in a YMCA for a shower.

However it does all lead to an appropriate action finale, in fact the only action scene in the novel, as Rackman chases after Kowalchuk. This leads into the bowels of the New York subway, where the two go at it in a fight to the death. And here the novel ends, a little abruptly it seemed to me; I was expecting some sort of resolution to Rackman’s internal plight, or at least with his estranged daughter and girlfriend. Instead Levinson leaves us on a vague note, ending the novel with the image of Rackman with his head in his hands, and whether it’s from relief, exhaustion, or grief he doesn’t say.

The other month I asked Len for his current thoughts on Without Mercy (as well as a few of his other novels); to my surprise he mailed me a writeup on each of them. Here is what he wrote about Without Mercy. As you’ll note he mentions that his original title was “The Massage Parlor Murders,” but Zebra changed it. I’m wondering if they did so because of the obscure 1974 grindhouse film The Massage Parlor Murders, a movie which has a similar plot to Without Mercy (though by all accounts the film is terrible).


During the late 1970s, I lived in a pad on West 55th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, not far from Times Square when it was the porn capitol of America, loaded with peep shows, massage parlors, porn bookstores, prostitution, and every other kind of sexual vice imaginable.

Often I walked through the area, on my way to the library at 42nd and 5th, or to a certain health food store near the library, or to Macy's on 34th Street, or other destinations. As a social science major in college, and amateur sex maniac in private life, I soon found myself wandering into various Times Square establishments to see what was going on. Becoming increasingly intrigued, I started prowling Times Square at night when the action really was happening.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I was and remain a romantic, and believed and still believe in undying love to the end of time, despite all evidence to the contrary. With this mindset, I didn't consider Times Square very erotic, although it disturbed me quite a lot.

The women who performed in live sex shows seemed pathetic. The lonely, desperate men who drooled over them seemed even more pathetic. The aura of sexual sickness depressed me. But it also fascinated me, because it represented the human psyche in its most freaky modality.

Times Square in that era offered a degraded form of eros, because you had to pay for sex, whether looking at a peep show, buying a porn magazine, or getting laid with a drugged out, mentally-disturbed, not very attractive woman, probably somebody's mother, in a massage parlor. Times Square successfully separated sex from love, turning me off and turning me on at the same time.

It wasn't long before a story and characters started forming in my overheated imagination. I'm not the kind of writer who sits down and willfully concocts a plot. Instead, I see a movie in my mind, and write it down. It's more about inspiration than intention.

The protagonist detective, Danny Rackman, was me under another guise. His girlfriend, Francie, was based on a woman I was involved with at the time. And the serial killer was based on an acquaintance of mine, a very angry man whom I believed capable of murder. But from another perspective, the serial killer also was me.

Nietzsche once said that when you look deeply into evil, then evil also looks deeply into you. I looked deeply into evil when I was writing "Without Mercy", and became scared by some of the elements I found inside my mind. I don't claim to be a great writer, but I don't like to make superficial characters. So I excavated that killer's head, and it's not a pretty picture.

When Truman Capote wrote about killers in "In Cold Blood", he presented them very sympathetically as poor lost guys who went wrong. My killer was not a poor lost guy who went wrong. He was a very disturbed, angry, violent, bad guy who nobody ever loved. Then one night everything got too much for him.

My title was "The Massage Parlor Murders", but the publisher, Zebra Books, changed it to "Without Mercy", which I'm not sure was an improvement. I read it recently for the first time in around 30 years, and found some of my usual maladroit sentences and examples of dubious logic, but the narrative tension and momentum still were working, at least for me.

The story still seemed very real, because I did spend many nights investigating the Times Square porn industry, while trying to understand my own sexual needs and occasional anger toward women. It was a journey of self-discovery, in addition to a novel I was writing for publication.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was describing in detail a world that soon would vanish. Times Square now is a branch of Disney World and Toys R'Us. The bleary-eyed, drugged out whores and pimps have gone elsewhere. I assume they're still in business in somebody's neighborhood, because as long as there are lonely desperate men, there will be bleary-eyed, drugged out whores and pimps groping for their money.