Thursday, November 28, 2013
Cybernarc #2: Gold Dragon, by Robert Cain
December, 1991 Harper Books
Picking up two months after the first volume, the second installment of Cybernarc is all about the action, as if “Robert Cain” (aka William H. Keith) is attempting to make up for the lack of it in the previous volume. Not that Cybernarc #1 didn’t feature much action, but as with most other latter-era men’s adventure novels it was moreso focused on introducing its characters and series concept.
Gold Dragon on the other hand opens with an action sequence and remains heavily action-minded throughout. We meet our titular Cybernarc, Rod the robot, as he’s crashing into a Hong Kong high rise hotel that’s filled with “inhuman monsters called drug lords” (as the back cover copy so hyperbolically refers to them). Rod, in Civilian Mod (meaning he looks like a regular human) and armed with a subgun, blasts his way across various floors as he hunts and kills a trio of Chinese drug lords (Feng, Hsu, and Cho) who happen to be in the hotel.
Spotting for Rod in another room in the hotel is Chris Drake, Rod’s SEAL partner and “friend.” As in the previous volume, Rod’s burgeoning hummanity plays a central role in Gold Dragon, with Rod learning what it means to be a friend, leading to some downright touching scenes – that is, touching amid all of the exploding heads and guts. Speaking of which, this second volume is a little less gory than the first one; to be sure Rod does rip people apart at times, often hitting men so hard that his hand impales their entire head, but these moments happen less frequently than they did in Cybernarc #1.
Rod succeeds in blowing away Hsu and Cho, but Feng escapes in a helicopter, and Rod is heavily damaged in his own escape, which sees him swinging via a long cable down to Drake’s hotel room window. Terminator style Rod’s face has been scraped off so that the black metal skull beneath is visible, which makes for a nice horror vibe during the action scene, as Chinese combatants drop their guns and run screaming from the terrifying sight. There follows a memorable bit where Drake uses an iron to fix Rod’s face, pulling the latex skin so that it looks as if he’s a regular human who just suffers from a bad facial scar.
Feng was the prime target of the hit, and as they repair to Mobile One, aka a retrofitted 747, Rod and Drake briefly meet up with James Weston, head of Project Ramrod, and Heather McDaniels, chief programmer and resident hot stuff who has yet to start up the inevitable romance with Drake – though given that Drake’s wife and daughter were horrifically murdered last time around, I guess we still need to give the guy some time to move on. In fact, and likely due to the era in which it appeared, Cybernarc is barely focused on sex at all – for example later in the book Rod and Drake meet up with Tai Song, a pretty young woman of Hmong/American descent, and the Drake/Song romance expected from tradition never happens.
A DEA rep named Lassiter informs the group that Feng is likely in Mongyin, Burma, a location deep in the jungle in which the drug lord employs the sadistic General Aung to run a heroin factory. Lassiter wants Rod and Drake to parachute in via High Altitude/High Opening and do some reconnaissance. Yep, it’s all just like in Rambo: First Blood Part II, with our protagonists dropping into the exotic jungle with strict orders not to fully engage the enemy. And just like in the movie they of course decide to do their own thing.
Rod, now in Combat Mod (meaning he’s built like a football linebacker, only with black titanium skin), parachutes into Mongyin with Drake, each of them packing light for the mission – Drake carrying a FN-FAL rifle and Rod an Uzi. Meanwhile we meet the pretty young Tai Song, who we learn would be considered beautiful by Western standards, but is generally overlooked by the men in her Hmong village here in Mongyin – again, all of it seemingly building up the potential for some good lovin’ courtesy Drake, but the author bypasses this; indeed Tai Song is eventually relegated to “translator” status and is shunted out of the narrative with little resolution.
First though we have a climatic rescue scene where Song, as we meet her, is dragged from her hut by General Aung’s troops and tossed into a cage which is hung in the town square. Rod and Drake, coming across the village after working through the jungle, immediately decide upon a lightning strike so as to save the girl. We learn though that it’s a trap – back in Hong Kong, while storming the hotel, Rod came across a nude Columbian woman in one of the drug lords’s rooms and let her go, deeming her a hooker or whatever and thus unimportant. Turns out though that it was Ramona Montalva, daughter of a high-ranking Columbian druglord, and Ramona was in Hong Kong to start a partnership between her family and Feng, even sleeping with one of Feng’s cronies to sweeten the deal.
Having seen what Rod is capable of first-hand, Ramona has now gone to Feng to warn him. Their gambit is to set a trap with the pretty, Western-looking Tai Song as bait, but of course Rod and Drake manage to waste all of Aung’s soldiers as they save her. The Hmong are born warriors and thus they now want a piece of Aung, who has ruled over them sadistically, even butchering people who have slighted him and roping their corpses to trees as warnings to others. So then Rod and Drake now have a native army as they go on deeper into Mongyin to assault Aung’s heroin lab – this being very much against orders, Rod having received a satellite-relayed message that the two of them are to proceed out of Mongyin asap.
Actually Gold Dragon is also like an installment of MIA Hunter (except with a robot!), as it indulges in the tropes that series is known for, including the traditional battle against a heavily-armed PBR boat along the Mekong river. The assault on Aung’s heroin factory is appropriately epic, with Rod tearing a Russian-made automatic grenade launcher off of the PBR and firing it submachine gun-style from his hip. The violence factor here is also large, culminating in the reveal that Song gets vengeance on Aung by hacking off his head in true Hmong fashion.
However, Feng has friggin’ escaped again, and once again Drake and Rod launch an attack, this time on Feng’s ship as it readies to disembark from Thailand. Feng again manages to escape, and in the course of this battle Rod is nearly destroyed and Drake is captured. This sets the stage for the climax, in which Rod, again in Civilian Mod (his Combat body damaged beyond repair), parachutes onto Feng’s ship as it sails through a stormy sea and blasts his way across it in search of Drake.
Ramona Montalva appears again in this finale, and we see that she’s truly in the Pulpy Evil Female mold I so enjoy; Feng trusses up a nude Drake and has his men torture him for intel, all while Ramona stands nearby licking her lips. There’s a very uncomfortable scene where she even grabs hold of his balls and squeezes them. But as these things go, Ramona doesn’t get killed during Rod’s storming of the bridge, and indeed our heroes go to great lengths to ensure they get her off of the ship in one piece, keeping her alive so as to eventually interrogate her. Methinks Ramona Montalva will play a larger role in future volumes, but we’ll see.
This final battle is one of those sequences the author excels in; Keith is great at delivering climatic battles that resonate both from an action standpoint as well as the emotional, with Rod the robot consumed with worry as he desperately searches for Drake. And the author turns it around with Drake, after being rescued, battling to get the critically-damaged Rod safely off of the ship.
So far the Cybernarc series has come the closest of all the men’s adventure series I’ve read to capturing the feel of a big budget summer blockbuster – I mean like the kind they made in the good old days, when they were action-focused and rated R. With the thrilling sequences, witty banter, and strong characterization, the series offers a whole lot more than you might expect.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Night Of The Phoenix, by Jack Cannon
September, 1989 Pocket Books
(Original publication June, 1975 Manor Books)
In 1989 Nelson DeMille decided to bring his Ryker series back into print, crediting himself as “Jack Cannon” with a note to the reader explaining that these editions were “revised and updated” by the author himself. The note to the reader also provides a little backstory on these books, briefly stating that the series started as Ryker with Leisure books before moving over to Manor and becoming Keller.
As part of the revisions New York “hero” cop Joe Ryker is here only referred to as such, and never as “Joe Keller.” It’s my theory that DeMille left Leisure because he got pissed off that editor Peter McCurtin published Ryker #3 under DeMille’s name, even though it was written by Len Levinson. Len explained this to me that McCurtin’s thinking was that Leisure owned not only the series but the rights to the author’s name. Doesn’t sound legally accurate to me, I mean DeMille was a real name, not a house name, but what do I know, it was the ‘70s.
But anyway shortly after this DeMille split from Leisure and went over to Manor, changed “Joe Ryker” to “Joe Keller,” and continued writing the series, which ran for a total of four volumes. Counting the two Ryker volumes DeMille published with Leisure (actually they published three by DeMille, but more on that below), that means the Joe Ryker/Keller books ran a total of six volumes, all of which were reprinted by Pocket in these “revised and updated” editions. Night Of The Phoenix originally appeared in 1975 as the third volume of Manor’s Keller series, but was the fifth (and thus penultimate) volume of the ’89 Ryker reprints.
Even this is screwy, though; as Marty McKee notes, Leisure actually published Night Of The Phoenix as the fourth volume of Ryker, titling it The Agent Of Death. Marty mentions that this Leisure edition features different character names than the Manor edition and also lacks a prologue which features so memorably in the Keller version of the tale (fortunately, the prologue is also in this Pocket reprint). So as Marty states, sly DeMille must’ve gotten paid twice for the same book…though if Len Levinson’s comments to me are any indication, DeMille probably didn’t get paid for either book, Manor and Leisure being notoriously reluctant to pay their authors.
Now that all that is out of the way, on to the novel itself. Night Of The Phoenix is along the same lines as the other DeMille Ryker I’ve read, The Hammer Of God. (A problem with all of these Ryker and Keller books is they're so goddamn expensive on the used book marketplace – hell, even the Pocket reprints are expensive, in some cases moreso than the original editions!) Rather than focusing on the action this genre is known for, DeMille instead delivers a police procedural that’s heavier on dialog and character.
And speaking of character, Joe Ryker is once again an arrogant, obnoxious prick, belittling coworkers and degrading superiors. Whereas Len Levinson made Ryker a whole lot more likable, DeMille’s (original) interpretation of the character is a hateful bastard, as repulsive as can be. Like Narc #4, this is another cop novel that takes place in the sweltering heat of a New York summer, and DeMille relishes in letting us know how sweaty and stinky his protagonist is – and talking about obnoxious, there are a few scenes where Ryker notes his own stink and will spread his arms so that others can smell him! So like I said, he’s a pretty repulsive guy.
As mentioned this Pocket reprint retains the prologue which was in the original Manor edition but removed from the Leisure edition. And truth be told, this prologue is the highlight of the novel; I could’ve read an entire novel about CIA assassin Morgan as he sits in ambush in some swamp deep in ‘Nam, targetting any unfortunate NVA or VC who might come his way. There’s a dark comedy afoot as we learn that Morgan is paid per kill, and, like Death Race 2000 or something, he’s paid in accordance to how important the person is he’s killed.
It’s late in the war and a CIA rep drops into the swamp to tell Morgan he’s no longer employed; the CIA rep further informs Morgan that he’s made the personal decision to kill Morgan and take the few hundred thousand dollars he’s amassed over the years in his Swiss Bank account. But Morgan ends up killing the rep and, stranded in the swamp (his sole companion a Vietnamese girl he wounded earlier due to a misfire and spent the rest of the night raping), begins walking his way out of the jungle.
This brings us to the “present,” clearly 1989 in this updated Pocket edition; I’m curious how much exactly DeMille revised, but the original Manor edition being so pricey I’m unable to compare the two printings. Anyway Ryker is called onto the case when a gruesome corpse is discovered; a former CIA agent is found sitting in his bathtub, killed by leeches. DeMille brings to life the nightmarish scene, with Ryker and his fellow cop “friend” Lindly looking in horror at the fat leeches as they float around in the bloody water – a scene which finishes on a bizarrely humorous cop movie-style joke when Ryker pulls one of the leeches out of the water and reads it its rights.
When the guy’s wife is later blown away by a sniper, Ryker is convinced something’s going on…his first clue being how his “stupid chief” superiors at the precinct sort of brush over how the Feds immediately swooped onto the crime scene and took away all of the evidence. Then CIA rep Jorgenson shows up and informs the cops that a rogue CIA assassin from the ‘Nam era is back and is hunting down the men who set him up. The assassin is of course Morgan, and Jorgenson delivers Ryker et al a background story that’s a little different from the “facts” as presented in the prologue. But then, Jorgenson makes it clear that he’s in the business of lying, thus making Ryker even more distrustful of the man and the entire situation.
But as mentioned Night Of The Phoenix is narratively identical to Hammer of God in that the novel is basically a dialog-heavy police procedural with none of the action or suspense a reader might want. There isn’t even much of a lurid element, other than the grisly crime scenes Ryker investigates, for example a later sequence where another former CIA agent who betrayed Morgan is found hanging above a building, the skin flayed from his corpse. As for sex, there isn’t any of that either, even considering a nonsensical bit where Ryker and his new partner Lentini hire a hooker for the night, even bringing her onto one of the crime scenes the next morning!
For the most part Night Of The Phoenix is comprised of Ryker snapping at his colleagues and superiors that there’s more to the Morgan case than meets the eye; he of course runs afoul of Jorgenson, who makes veiled threats that Ryker “knows too much.” Ryker’s certain that a member of Jorgenson’s CIA team is a turncoat, someone who is feeding Morgan intel, but Jorgenson continues to backpedal and spread mistruths. After a while Ryker’s also certain he and his partners will come under fire, so in one of the more unusual “plot twists” I’ve ever read in one of these novels, he decides to hell with it and goes on vacation!
For vacation Ryker settles on a rural farmland owned by his ex in-laws in Chicago. Both of them “old unconverted Nazis,” they live on a compound guarded by dogs and the old man has an arsenal in his basement, complete with machine guns, subguns, and even gatling guns. There’s a part where Ryker, Lindly, and Lentini look over the weaponry, suspecting they might need it when the inevitable CIA squad comes after them – Ryker has gone on vacation so as to escape any death squads that might be sent after him, but when Lindly follows after him Ryker knows the cat’s out of the bag and his hiding place has been uncovered.
But man, DeMille can’t be bothered to write an action scene. Forget about Chekov’s dictum; DeMille shows us a whole lot more than just a rifle above the mantle, but doesn’t use them in the third act or any other act. When the squad does show up that night, all we get is a somewhat tense scene where Ryker et al hear the dogs barking outside; they see some headlights; and then the car drives away! The next morning, despite finding all of the dogs dead, Ryker just decides to leave, telling Lentini to go start up the car…and Lentini’s killed in the ensuing blast, the CIA of course having wired the car to blow. You see, Ryker’s an idiot in addition to being an asshole.
Please skip this paragraph if you want to avoid the novel’s surprise. As the murders continue, Jorgenson doles out more info, like the fact that Morgan is a leper. Ryker starts to wonder how a guy with such a supposedly-ruined face could get around the city without anyone noticing him. And like Ryker you soon begin to suspect Jorgenson himself. This turns out to be the reveal – Jorgenson is actually the murderer, and he doles out the tale for Ryker at the very end of the novel. Long story short, Jorgenson himself was part of the CIA team that screwed Morgan over, and also as coincidence would have it Jorgenson happened to be on the base a jungle-ravaged Morgan stumbled into after surviving his betrayal in the prologue sequence. So Jorgenson finished off Morgan himself (throwing him out of a helicopter!) and now, these years later, has decided to cash in on the Swiss Bank account, after getting the various serial numbers from his old turncoat pals. So in other words the promised tale of a leper-faced CIA assassin running amok in NYC is denied us, DeMille once again going for more of a “realistic” approach. Dammit!
While it skimps on the action and the sleaze, Night Of The Phoenix is still rather well-written, with DeMille bringing his characters to life, in particular his slimy protagonist. There’s good dialog and funny stuff too, though nothing on the un-PC level of Hammer of God. Speaking of which I don’t think DeMille removed too much of such material from this revised edition, as evidenced in an early scene where Ryker goes on about how black people hate cold weather. It’s just that in this installment Ryker’s moreso just a regular asshole instead of a racist and sexist asshole.
I’d like to read more of DeMille’s Ryker and Keller novels, whether in the original editions or these “Jack Cannon” reprints, but the prices for them are too prohibitive. However the post-DeMille Ryker novels from Leisure, credited to Edson T. Hamill, are fortunately much more affordable, so I’ll be reading them next.
Oh, and as for these Jack Cannon/Pocket reprints, each of them have similar covers, of this shades-wearing "cool" cop who in no way shape or form resembes Ryker or anyone else in these books. In fact, the covers look like stills from the sequel to Cobra that Sylvester Stallone never gave us.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Mystery, by Matthew Paris
February, 1973 Avon Books
If you’ve ever wondered what it would’ve been like if Philip K. Dick had written a crime novel, wonder no longer; this obscure paperback original gives a good indication of the book that might have ensued. What’s funny is the back cover of Mystery proclaims “An ordinary cop on an extraordinary mission!”, which makes me think the copyist either A.) Never read the book; B.) Read the book and couldn’t figure out how to synopsize it; or C.) Figured the hell with it.
There is in fact nothing ordinary about Mystery. It’s one screwed-up, surreal novel, ostensibly a murder investigation set in New York City, but a New York that seems to be out of some psychedelic sci-fi nightmare. Our narrator is Lt. Salvador, a top New York cop who when we meet him is investigating a murder. Salvador’s white whale is the mysterious Farmer, owner of the infamous Rabbit Club, a shadowy underworld of pleasure palaces. Salvador’s major goal throughout the novel is bringing down Farmer – though first he has to find him, or for that matter discover if he even exists.
Mystery starts off as a typical crime novel, albeit one with a definite literary bent, as Salvador drives around New York City following up clues on a murdered money-runner before he’s tasked by the DA to look into the murder of a call girl who worked at one of the Rabbit Club’s bars. But then Salvador stops off at a suspect’s apartment, a gorgeous woman who throws herself at him, and before they make it the woman tells Salvador to take a look inside her bathroom – and here Matthew Paris lets you know what kind of novel you’re actually in for:
The bathroom door was open. A large cow was sprawled over the edge of the bathtub on its spine. Its black eyes stared at me, probably with more feeling than when they had been alive. Its gigantic head hung limply under the running water falling from the shower. Fluorescent lights streaming from above the mirror illuminated the blood that was running through the hot water onto the colored tile. The cow’s throat was slashed across the jugular vein. I shivered with terror.
Believe it or not, Mystery only proceeds to get stranger. (And this dead cow in the bathtub is never even explained!) In the twisted course of this twisted novel we have conundrum upon conundrum as our narrator encounters a host of bizarre characters, from a general who keeps a harem of young boys to a priest of filth who lives in a church filled with statues made of excrement. There are also “doubles” of virtually every character, including Salvador – who, by the way, isn’t an “ordinary” cop at all; throughout the novel he just blows people away for absolutely no reason, and commits a variety of criminal and murderous acts without any reprimand. I mean, I thought the guy was with the NYPD, not the LAPD!! (Okay, just kidding…)
The name of the murdered Rabbit Club hooker is Velma Roach, and her corpse lies in the Club’s plush Manhattan location. Even the poor murdered girl is strange, as Salvador notes that the corpse is bald; we’re informed this is so because the Rabbit Club girls must be able to change their looks to suit the whims of their current client. Calimyne, one of Farmer’s cronies and the runner of this particular Club location, trades cryptic banter with Salvador in what is a forshadowing of the rest of the novel – for the most part Mystery is comprised of Salvador going from one location to another and trading bizarre, cryptic dialog with bizarre and cryptic characters. While interesting at first it does get old.
You see, the problem with Mystery is the same problem that plagues any overly-literary tome that attempts to be surreal: eventually the reader realizes that there will be no resolution to anything, and what with all of the “weird” stuff the book soon lacks any emotional content. I don’t mean “emotional content” in today’s meaning of the phrase, ie the way everything from movies to commercials will try to milk emotions, pandering to the lowest common denominator – rather I mean you don’t care for anyone in this novel, because each of them is devoid of any human spark.
So then we read with more of an intellectual pleasure as Salvador tracks clues and, uh, randomly murders various people. Seriously, there will be parts where he’s talking to a suspect, and as the suspect walks off Salvador will whip out his gun and blow the person away. Paris works up a subtle subplot that Salvador might be on some psychedelic drug; there is often mention of a mysterious powder various Rabbit Club reps are snorting, and at one point a doctor briefly examines Salvador and asks him, “Are you taking any drugs?” (Salvador’s response is classic: “Should I be?”)
Eventually Salvador hooks up with Kelly Starr, gorgeous Rabbit Club VIP who is an intimate of Farmer but who wants to help Salvador find him…or at least, I think that’s how it goes. The book is very obscure at times. Paris even proves himself unconcerned with doling out regular novel stuff; for example in one scene Salvador heads into a bar to talk to a contact while Kelly waits for him in his car, and when Salvador comes out Kelly informs him that she just received a call from the DA, who asked her to inform Salvador that a host of minor characters were all just knocked off! It’s pretty ridiculous, but just another indication of the surreal world in which this occurs.
It also gradually becomes apparent that Paris is more concerned with word-painting than he is with telling a story with a plot. The murder investigation loses focus as the author spends more time serving up descriptions of his hellishly weird New York. Again, while the writing is good, plot development and any sort of meaning is lost. As mentioned, major events happen “off camera” and the cryptic dialog makes the reader feel as if he’s only getting half the story. Nothing is explained, not even the doubles. For example when Salvador first meets a double, it’s during an apocalyptic firefight, and rather than question the guy Salvador instead tries to kill him. Even when the two meet again in the finale Salvador never once asks who the double is, or even what he is.
Speaking of the finale, there isn’t much of one, but then this is expected given the increasingly surreal nature of the writing. Once again Paris is more content to word-paint rather than deliver a suspenseful climax, thrusting Salvador into a variety of arbitrary locations in which bizarre shit goes down, none of it explained. As for the book’s sleaze quotient, there isn’t much of one; the gunfights are minimally described, and the few sex scenes immediately fade to black. Overall the book has more in common with the self-indulgent hippie lit of the era; funny that it was packaged as a genre novel, complete with a lurid cover painting.
I can’t say I recommend Mystery, but it’s definitely an interesting read. Perhaps this is one of those novels that improves with a second reading, but the constant obsfucation and casual disregard for plot development, characterization, and reality served to turn me off in the long run.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Psycho Squad #1: Execution Night, by Rick Dade
October, 1988 Berkley Books
Thanks to Mike Madonna for letting me know about this forgotten, two-volume series. Credited to “Rick Dade” but copyright Berkley Books, Psycho Squad capitalizes on the late ‘80s serial killer/satanic panic fad and melds it with the men’s adventure genre. But while this first volume has an interesting concept, it’s lost amid the plethora of characters and the lack of action scenes.
My bet is the author was inspired by Maury Terry’s awesome 1987 book The Ultimate Evil, a true crime publication which contested, with convincing evidence, that the Son of Sam murders were actually committed by a satanic cult which operated around Yonkers, New York and stretched all the way back to the Manson massacre. Whether Terry was correct or not, the fact remains that The Ultimate Evil features a fascinating concept, that of a sort of “satanic mafia” which operates in the underworld, and one of these days I’ll probably get around to reviewing the book itself.
Anyway, Dade (whoever he was) peppers Execution Night with enough clues to let one know he’s read Terry’s book. He too presents a satanic cult for the villains, one with criminal leanings…it just takes forever for him to get them all together. Sadly, rather than being a slam-bang action-meets-horror affair, the novel instead hopscotches all over the place, introducing one new character after another until there are way too many cultists in the kitchen – and worse yet, there are so many of them that the author loses control and is unable to present them as a viable threat.
The heroes suffer too; the back of the cover has it that Jack Flint, Larry Mace, and JJ Santiago are the titular Psycho Squad, but Flint takes up all of the “good guy” narrative, with Mace getting a very small portion of the text and Santiago relegated to what’s basically a cameo appearance. In fact the group doesn’t even become a group until the final page; like most other first volumes of a late-era men’s adventure series, Execution Night is heavily focused on story-building. If this book had been published in the ‘70s, the Squad would already be formed by page 1 and they’d be gorily blowing away a faux-Manson by page 2. But since it was published when the genre was attempting to be a bit more “respectable,” it’s all about plot and story development.
Flint then is the star, but even he is lost amid the author’s constant shuffling from one newly-introduced psychotic villain to the next. A sergeant in the NYPD’s Homicide department, Flint we learn has gotten a rep for bringing down serial killers. When we meet him he’s in the act of taking on the infamous Doctor Blood, a serial killer dentist(!). Flint blows him away in what will prove to be one of the novel’s scant action scenes; as he dies Blood warns Flint that the killings “are just beginning.”
Meanwhile the author begins to unveil the endless parade of psychos who make up the threat in this opening volume; lead by the bald and creepy Myron Nemo, it develops at great length that they are members of the Tribe, a Manson Family-esque cult which got together in the late ‘60s and hasn’t been seen since. Their Manson is a freak named Dean Bishop, aka The Source, who has been in an insane asylum for 15 years but is now, due to dimwitted psychiatrists, about to be released.
There are way too many members of the Tribe to get into in this review (honestly, the novel is mostly comprised of introducing each of them in various one-off scenarios as they leave the real world to return to the cultish fold), however one of the main members bears mentioning: Erwin Roth, a massive biker who leads the Wheels of Death, yet another satanic cult, this one made up of bikers who do jobs for organized crime; in addition to leading the Wheels Roth also serves as Myron and Bishop’s top enforcer.
Pissed off over the political red tape which allowed Doctor Blood to run amok for so long, Flint ends up punching out his captain and quitting the force. But when a “copycat killer” murders the woman Blood was after in the opening pages (the killer being Roth, who’s finishing Blood’s job), Flint vows to bring the killer in on his own. Humorously enough he illegally portrays himself as a cop throughout the book; having kept his badge Flint goes around showing it to people so they’ll let him in on crime scenes and whatnot.
Flint visits a gun store operated by an old friend to decide upon his new hardware. Interestingly, he settles upon a Charter Arms .44 Bulldog revolver, the same gun that was used in the Son of Sam murders. I take it this is yet another Ultimate Evil reference by the author, but still, wouldn’t it have made more sense to give this gun to one of the villains?? Anyway this scene also serves to introduce JJ Santiago, a pencil-moustached “dandy” who too was once an NYPD cop, one known for his sharpshooting skills, but who was kicked off the force five years ago. I figured from here Flint would form the titular squad, but Santiago disappears until the final pages of the novel.
Larry Mace serves as the NYPD Deputy Medical Examiner, and thus has an acquaintance with both Flint and Santiago. (The cover artist by the way provides accurate illustrations of the three heroes, Mace being the blonde, Santiago the moustached “dandy,” and Flint the gruff one who looks like he’s posing for, well, the cover of an action novel, even though he’s in the middle of what appears to be an insanely close-quarters firefight.) Neither Mace nor Santiago are given much depth or personality, and the author further shames them by delivering Mace a serious blow in the final pages, one that despite its viciousness lacks much impact. (Long story short, Roth blows away Mace’s pregnant wife – shocking and unsettling enough – but the hell of the thing is Dade doesn’t even bother informing us she exits until a page before she’s killed!)
The series concept is introduced very late in the game with the appearance of Anton Vraczek, a Donal Trump-like tycoon whose family was murdered by nutjobs years before; Vraczek uses his massive funds to aid police in catching criminals, and asks the now-unemployed Flint if he’d like to work for him. Flint tells Vraczek he’ll head up a force that goes after serial killers, using Vraczek’s vast resources. Bizarrely enough, this is Vraczek’s only appearance, the author immediately going back to his one-off introductions of various Tribe members.
As mentioned the Tribe is getting back together; we gradually learn that years ago they perpetrated the Montauk Massacre, where a few of Bishop’s followers killed a slew of people. As Nemo puts the old gang together again he intimates that “Execution Night” is coming again, prepping the reader for an apocalyptic finale. Strangely though Dade delivers an eleventh-hour reveal where Nemo and another Tribe leader are really putting everyone back together as a land-buying scheme! It’s their plan to have Bishop et al murder a whole bunch of people in a certain developing area so Nemo’s company can buy the land for cheap, their logical assumption being that no one will want to buy land where a massacre has occurred. Makes sense, but why sully up a pulpy plot with such a “real world” concept?
There are only a two real action scenes: one toward the end in which Flint and Santiago take on the Wheels of Death, and Flint and Santiago’s climatic attack on the docked ship in which the Tribe is hiding. Though the book is violent, at least so far as how many people are murdered by the Tribe, when it comes to the action Dade brushes over the gore for the most part, just writing that people get shot and fall down. On the plus side there isn’t much gun-porn, though. The characters mostly use pistols, save for Santiago, who goes for a Mac-10. Elements of sci-fi, or at least the old GI Joe cartoon, are introduced via the Eliminator Mark IV Ballistic Launcher, a “rocket gun” that’s the size of a machine pistol and fires miniature tail-finned rockets; Flint uses it in the finale to blow up a few people real good.
The novel runs at a dense 234 pages of small print, and what’s odd is how rushed the finale is. As mentioned Mace is dealt a crippling blow in the final pages, but this too is glossed over for the most part, the author quickly dispensing of the villains he’s been building up throughout the entire course of the novel. In other words, the conclusion is not very satisfying. I was expecting something more massive or tense; instead the Tribe begins to turn upon one another, and the three protagonists basically show up and blow the remaining ones away.
There was only one more volume in the series, The Torturer, which appears to be a bit more action-centric. No matter of searching has revealed who wrote this first volume, but “Rick Dade” was likely a house name. I’m also not sure yet if the same author wrote the second volume. Given the book’s focus on story and character, to the detriment of the violent action scenes, makes me suspect that Execution Night might’ve been the work of Simon Hawke, who wrote the similarly-structured Steele #1, which coincidentally or not was published around the same time.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Cut, by Jerry Bronson
July, 1976 Pinnacle Books
Proving once again that the best trash is ‘70s trash, Cut pulls no punches in its sordid tale of an asthmatic private eye, a missing socialite, a hippie cult, and the sick world of snuff films. “Jerry Bronson” was actually the pseudonym of two British authors, which Justin Marriott explains below, and after reading this novel I’ll need to reassess my lazy opinion of UK pulp as “prudish!”
But then, nothing about Cut comes off as British, save for one slightly jarring bit where Frank Reagan, our Dirty Harry-esque former cop turned private eye, uses the distincly British curse “bloody.” Otherwise the novel is as lurid as one could wish a trashy ‘70s novel to be, opening with the graphically-detailed filming of a porn scene that, unbeknownst to its drugged-out starlet, is actually a snuff film…and her ensuing on-screen murder goes on for a few pages, the authors going out of their way to push buttons. And they succeed – I’ve read some sick shit, and this opening chapter of Cut is pretty damn sick!!
The opening chapter also introduces the villain of the tale, namely Priest, a muscle-bound and bald “guru” of sorts who wears denim suits and white gloves of kid leather; Priest also fancies himself a director and shoots snuff films on stolen equipment, usually murdering the people he steals it from. In this scene we witness one of his snuff films in full, as the novel opens from the perspective of Reena, the starlet who thinks she’s shooting just another porn scene.
As mentioned the explicit detail in this sequence alone places Cut outside the realm of most other ‘70s pulp, but then it gets super sick as the masked and caped mystery man who’s humping Reena pulls out a dagger at the moment of truth and stabs her in the throat…and then continues to mutilate her face in excruciating detail for a few pages. The mystery man’s identity is easily figured out as the novel progresses, but this first chapter really sets him up as one sick bastard.
After this charming opening we are introduced to the “hero” of the tale, the aforementioned Frank Reagan (his last name elicits a few Ronald Reagan jokes in the text), a former Las Vegas cop who was kicked off the force after blowing away a drug dealer who sold Reagan’s former-junkie wife some heroin, heroin which she OD’d on. Now working as a P.I. in San Francisco, Reagan is as mentioned asthmatic and as bitter and cynical as you’d expect a private eye to be.
With its jaded, ball-busting private eye protagonist, snuff film plot, over-the-top tone, and super-lurid vibe, Cut is everything LA Morse’s The Big Enchilada wanted to be. However unlike that later novel Cut is told in third person and, despite the seriously dark humor that runs throughout, it never devolves into satire or spoofery. Also, at 146 pages of big print, it’s half the length – indeed it’s shorter than the average volume of The Penetrator – which is also to its strength.
Reagan’s contacted by the wealthy and beautiful Lorraine Hamilton, who lives in opulence in Los Angeles. A veritable man-eater, Lorraine sets her sights on Reagan as soon as he enters her palatial home. After getting the details of the job out of the way – Lorraine wants Reagan to find her sister, Lee, an 18 year-old nympho who’s run off into the hills around LA to join some hippie cult – Lorraine promptly gets down to the business of having sex with Reagan.
As expected for a pulp P.I., Reagan’s method of “investigation” is basically to harrass and beat up people. He drives up to one of the communes in the hills and does precisely that, throwing around tranced-out hippies who have no idea who Lee is. Eventually he gets wind of Priest’s cult; larger and more mysterious than the others, it’s located among the same hills, the cultists having taken over abandoned studio sets from the golden days of Hollywood.
Anyone hoping for a deeper glimpse into who Priest is and an explanation for why he holds people in such thrall will be let down – I mentioned ealrier that the short length of Cut is a good thing, but that’s at least so far as its overall impact goes. One thing it lacks is much explanation for what we are witnessing, or much depth. But anyway like a muscular Charlie Manson Priest rules an obedient flock, and shortly after barging onto the cult’s property Reagan is escorted by Priest himself to Lee’s shack, Priest proving to Reagan that the girl is here of her own will.
Guess what, this leads to yet another sex scene, Lee throwing herself at Reagan. Again, the novel is very similar to The Big Enchilada, with its protagonist scoring with practically every woman he meets. Here at the commune Reagan runs afoul of a few of Priest’s stooges, thus setting the scene for the later action sequences, including one enjoyably arbitrary bit where Reagan drives back up to the commune in the middle of the night for the express purpose of murdering a few of them!
The novel rushes headlong for its conclusion as we are quickly introdued to Douglas Q. Wilde, a Boris Karloff/Vincent Price-type horror actor with delusions of grandeur who is known for portraying insane men who get off on murdering women. (Even the “subtle” material is obtuse in Cut!) Wilde happens to be at a party Lorraine is hosting, and Reagan instantly suspects something about the guy. Meanwhile Lorraine doesn’t believe that her sister is really a willing Priest devotee, and insists that Reagan bring her back, regardless of what the girl says.
The authors are also good at setting up action scenes. When Reagan finds himself being tailed by two of Priest’s goons the next day, he veers off into Disneyland, and the ensuing action sequence suspensefully plays out among the rides and attractions. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride is the setting for one memorable scene, where Reagan jumps out among the model pirates and blows away one of his pursuers as he rides by in a boat.
Like Dirty Harry Reagan carries a .44 Magnum, though sometimes it’s a .45, and sometimes it’s an automatic…that is, when it isn’t a revolver. And yes, he just has the one gun! So it’s safe to say the authors forgot to compare notes when it came to Reagan’s gun. Strangely enough they don’t play up too much on the gun-battle gore, with Reagan apparently doling out clean and nonmessy kills, which must be pretty hard to do with a .44 Magnum.
Before it’s all over we get another detailed snuff film sequence, this time “starring” a character we know. And unlike Morse’s parodic character Sam Hunter, Reagan is actually fazed by what he sees, to such a point that Priest gets a drop on him while he’s watching the flick. This leads to a suitably apocalyptic finale, one that leaves Reagan further unsettled. In fact it’s strange that there was no sequel to Cut, as the authors leave a lot of potential for further lurid adventures with Reagan.
As for the authors and more background info on Cut, here’s what Justin Marriott has to say:
Jerry Bronson was Laurence James and John Harvey. The late Laurence James is my hero, ex-editor at NEL whose final days were spent on Deathlands as Jerry Axler. When the original author of the first Deathlands story faced a few personal issues which resulted in him supposedly turning in a manuscript consisting of several hundred pages of dialogue between the two lead characters crouching in an armoured tank, it was Laurence that Gold Eagle turned to. No doubt due to the connection between GE editor Mark Howell and Laurence -- they worked together at New English Library in London during the early 1970s.
John Harvey is the best-selling and politically aware crime author. I asked Harvey about the book, and his version was Laurence did the kinky bits and he did the PI bits. From what I know of Laurence, that would definitely have been the case. Apparently he always had the latest scandalous gossip and sometimes photos of various dignitaries and celebrities up to no good. His Hells Angels books as Mick Norman for New English Library are my favoutite all-time books - subversive and hugely entertaining.
Cut was written for the American market. The link here was Andy Ettinger at Pinnacle who reprinted a number of Laurence's UK books at Pinnacle, and those of his colleagues. Examples include the Edge westerns by George G Gilman (Terry Harknett was the author but Laurence was key in their development), The Killers by Klauz Netzen (Nettson in the US), The Gladiators by Andrew Quiller (the pun only works with the English series which was called The Eagles. Aquilla meaning Roman for eagle), The Vikings as Neil Langholm, and Simon Rack as Laurence James.
There's no way Cut would have been printed in the UK in the 1970s. I think the stilted and restrained approach of UK pulp authors reflected the standards of the time and our strict censorship laws. Hardcore only became legally available here in the 1990s and is still only available through licenced sex shops. In the 1980s the video distributor of The Evil Dead was given a jail sentence and the likes of The Exorcist weren't available on DVD until the late 1990s. At one point the word Chainsaw was banned, so that terrible film with Gunnar Hansen was renamed Hollywood Hookers. Nunchaka scenes were also banned in the 90s, which meant Enter the Dragon couldn't be seen uncut and the video cover was doctored to show Lee holding what appeared to be a large baguette! (At one point, an uncut version was accidentally shown on terrestial TV and was the source of bootlegs for many years.) Bizarre I know - we Brits are totally obsessed with sex and violence yet at the same time totally repressed and hung-up.
I think Cut shows what they could write with the brakes off!
Monday, November 11, 2013
Making U-Hoo, by Irving A. Greenfield
November, 1973 Dell Books
Another of those early ‘70s sex novels Dell Books specialized in, Making U-Hoo is courtesy Irving A. Greenfield, who again delivers a fast-moving narrative that, while not being especially memorable in the plot department, definitely delivers some memorable sex scenes. In the ‘60s Greenfield served as “Vin Fields” for porn imprint Midwood, so he certainly had the experience under his belt (so to speak) to capitalize on the sex novel boom of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s.
The playful title is apt – the characters in this novel “make yoo-hoo” in both the literal and the figurative sense. Sales for a previously-low tier soft drink called U-Hoo (a citrus-lime soda clearly modelled on Sprite) have gone through the roof, basically destroying the profits of larger soft drink manufacturer SDA (read: Coca-Cola). Protagonist and sometimes narrator Bart Sherriff, a consulting ad whiz, is called in by SDA to find out what’s going on.
I say “sometimes” a narrator because most of Making U-Hoo is in third-person, but Greenfield will arbitrarily jump into Bart’s perspective for several first-person sequences. Sometimes it’s when he’s meeting with clients, other times when he’s just walking around (strangely though, none of the actual sex scenes are written in first-person), so there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the perspective changes.
Bart Sherriff is a totally ‘70s protagonist; he’s in his 30s and lives in a swinging bachelor pad in Manhattan complete with a round bed and a stereophonic system that’s hooked into a fancy lighting system, so that various colors will flicker in accordance with the mood of the music. He’s such a successful advertising man that he rents out his services, charging high dollars for his consultations. Just as importantly, so far as the narrative goes, he’s also a big success with the ladies, able to score with ease.
We see Bart handling a few accounts before he’s called in by SDA president Knowles to handle the U-Hoo situation. Knowles states that the problem threatens the national economy, and it’s so bad that people are bootlegging U-Hoo, buying it off shelves and reselling it at a massive upcharge. After accepting the job Bart realizes he’s being followed, and soon discovers that the Feds are on the case, shadowing his every move.
Not that this prevents him from sleeping with the first of three conquests in the novel, this being a gorgeous blonde SDA secretary named Sandy, who just started working at SDA, is happy to go home with Bart, and is obviously an FBI agent (though it takes Bart a while to realize this). In the ensuing sex scene Greenfield takes us completely into the shagadelic ‘70s, with the couple engaging in explicitly-rendered sex on Bart’s round bed while stroboscopic lights flash around them.
Greenfield lazily works up a mystery here, but the novel is moreso in the light humor vein, with no violence or deaths or anything of that nature. In fact when Bart is confronted by a pair of FBI goons he’s easily able to fool them into thinking he himself is a G-Man, and then gets the guys drunk and sends them on their way. This after the trio have watched a televised speech from the President (clearly Nixon, though he isn’t named – and there’s a fair amount of President-bashing throughout the novel, again firmly rooting it in its era), in which the President informs the country of the “soda conspiracy” and requests that everyone buy a can of pop the next day.
It’s his ruse to further throw off the Feds that leads Bart to his next conquest, a brunette model named Lois. The focus of the most sex scenes in the novel, I guess Lois is the closest we get to a female protagonist. Bart calls in a crazy friend to throw a costume party in Bart’s apartment, so Bart can take off in the fray and leave the Feds to wonder what happened to him. He tells his crazy friend to bring along anyone he knows; one of these people happens to be Lois, who offers her place to Bart as a safe place to stay, and thus moments after meeting each other they rush back to her place to screw. Ah, the ‘70s.
Greenfield serves up another pages-long sex scene here, miles beyond the metaphor and analogy-ridden purple prose you’d encounter in say the Baroness series, with graphic depictions baldly rendered…though not with the outrageous aspects of Harold Robbins or the boring, repetitive, and mechanical sex descriptions you’d find in a vintage sleaze novel like Flowers And Flesh. One thing I’ve noticed though about Greenfield is his tendency to always mention what his female characters taste like, if you catch my drift.
Making U-Hoo runs at 251 pages of fairly big print, and I figured most of those pages would be given over to sex scenes, but that’s really not the case. In fact Greenfield seems determined to deliver an actual story, one that’s couched in goofy humor and the occasional sex scene. Most of the novel is focused on Bart’s inner monologues and his thoughts and feelings on various things as he traipses around ‘70s New York City tracking down clues. However the U-Hoo “conspiracy” stuff is not given enough weight or focus to classify the novel as a thriller or anything of the sort. Again, it’s more of a comedy.
In fact the whole mystery angle is rendered moot in the reveal, when Bart meets Flosie, a black masseuse. While giving Bart a handjob she casually informs him that she’s behind the “conspiracy,” having spread the word that the black community should “get whitey” by buying up one brand of soda and then gouging the market with inflated resale prices. Bart thanks her by paying to have sex with her, having already broken off his days-long relationship with Lois. In fact the women just abruptly drop out of the narrative once Bart’s done with them, and Greenfield intentionally or not builds ill will against his protagonist, as it’s clear that these women develop feelings for Bart, particularly Lois, but he could care less.
I’m sort of on the fence with Making U-Hoo; I enjoy Greenfield’s writing and the dialog he gives his characters, but the plot is middling and forgettable. However the book works as a nice capsule of early ‘70s New York and the fashions of its hipper denizens, which always results in high marks from me. I guess I’d end by saying you should maybe check it out if you come across it for cheap, but it’s not worth going to great lengths to hunt it down.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
The Hitman #2: L.A. Massacre, by Norman Winski
July, 1984 Pinnacle Books
The first volume of Norman Winski’s The Hitman series was a lot of goofy fun, but this second installment is even better. In fact it’s one of the best ‘80s men’s adventure novels I’ve read. It sort of comes off like Bronson: Blind Rage as rewritten by David Alexander, melding the sleazy and lurid plotlines of the former with the OTT action onslaught of the latter.
This one opens a little over a year after Chicago Deathwinds, and we learn that since we last saw him Dirk “The Hitman” Spencer has taken out “the Lake Shore Killer-Rapist” and Harry Gayarti, “the biggest dope-dealer in Chicago history.” L.A. Massacre opens with Spencer pulling a hit on another piece of scum who preys on the people of Illinois, dousing the bastard with a flamethrower before making a getaway in his Countach S Lamborghini.
As anyone who has read the first volume knows, this series pretty much begins where “over the top” leaves off, and this installment goes to even further heights of lunacy. The opening immolation, crazy as it is, is almost forgettable when the rest of the novel is taken into consideration. Another improvement from the first volume is that this time Winski doesn’t pad out the pages. The action is fast, furious, and constant – indeed, if it wasn’t for the colorfully-described gore, comic book-ish tone, and generally goofy feeling, L.A. Massacre would almost becoming numbing in its total devotion to action sequences.
The only thing this volume lacks in comparison to its predecessor is a focus on sex, which is strange given that in this installment Spencer cracks down on an illicit porn empire, one that also deals in snuff films and kiddie porn. Unlike the first volume, which saw Spencer mixing “business and pleasure” while on his mission, L.A. Massacre features all the “good stuff” in the opening pages only, and Spencer’s in full-on business mode throughout the rest of the tale.
In fact it’s Spencer’s latest conquest who gets him on the case: Karla, a sexy Brazilian stewardess, whom Spencer takes to a porn theater at Karla’s behest. (In a definite “hmmm” moment, Winski writes that, “when the movie grew all too predictable,” Spencer begins to think about his days in ‘Nam!) The onscreen sex gets Karla quite randy, but then shock overcomes her horniness when she sees her kid sister Manuella in the film. She’s lost contact with the girl, a runaway who isn’t yet 18, but Karla can tell from watching her sister as she engages in sex with another woman that Manuella is doped up, and no doubt was forced into all of this.
Spencer’s own sense of outrage is inflamed, not that this stops him from banging Karla right after the flick, the lady apparently getting over her shock pretty damn fast. (Also just as humorously, Spencer has picked up the odd habit of calling his lady friends “rose petals” this time around.) Learning that the porn movie was produced by Beaver Enterprises, Spencer checks with his old flame Valerie, newsreporter and former actress, aka the gorgeous babe he rescued in the previous volume, and remember the only woman Spencer has ever loved – a scene which sees the two getting friendly again in Valerie’s office.
Flying himself to LA, Spencer researches Beaver Enterprises, which is headquartered in a geodesic dome. Soon enough he learns that beyond their “respectable” front as a porn studio, they also deal in snuff films, child abduction, and kiddie porn, yet of course the damn liberal bureacrats won’t do anything about it! Even more unbelievably, Spencer learns that the silent owner of the entire operation is superstar Billy Que, a “younger clone of Elvis” who as coincidence would have it just happens to be in LA at the same time, giving another of his hugely popular concerts.
Billy Que is the goofiest archvillain you’ll ever meet in a men’s adventure novel, a portly and pompadoured crooner who wears silver jumpsuits and prefers young boys and girls to women. Spencer doesn’t mess around, pulling off a hit on Billy as soon as he finds out he’s behind Beaver; this is one of those setpieces Winski excels in, like in the first volume where Spencer pulled off a hit with an Uzi while performing flight aerobatics! And like that previous time this hit fails, thanks to Billy’s wearing of a bullet proof vest (which I don’t think would’ve been much use against Spencer’s high-velocity slugs, but no matter).
From here L.A. Massacre settles into a repetitive but enjoyable sequence of Spencer attempting to kill Billy Que in a variety of action-packed ways, with the villain himself always managing to get away but tons of his henchmen buying it in spectacularly gory fashion. You can tell Winski did some time at Gold Eagle, as he doles out the gun-porn with abandon, but never to the point where it becomes nauseating. Spencer is loaded to bear with an arsenal of machine pistols and assault rifles as he runs around in his costume, “a body-tight black linen jumpsuit with a long silver zipper in front,” a black “stocking mask” covering his face.
The lurid element gets a big focus as well, as we learn that Stephanie Julio, the obese president of Beaver Enterprises, puts on “parties” for Billy Que, bringing in drugged-up children for his sick pleasure. Spencer crashes one of these parties, which takes place in the penthouse suite of a posh apartment building, another great sequence which sees Spencer crawling all the way to the top of the place on suction cups and mowing everyone down with his Uzi. As mentioned the gore and carnage are stronger this time out as well, though still not up to the hyperkenetic level of David Alexander.
Winski in fact keeps piling climatic action sequence on top of climatic action sequence, building up until the expected final confrontation at Billy Que’s remote villa on Catalina Island (not-so-coincidentally the setting of the Winski-penned Able Team #2). During his blitzes Spencer picks up the intel that Billy plans to make Manuella the “star” of one of his snuff films – a priviledge we learn is granted to anyone who attempts to out Beaver Enterprises – and so the clock is ticking for Spencer to make his hit and save the girl. The finale is even more OTT than the action scenes that came before, with Spencer “drafting” a herd of buffalo in his merciless attack.
The stock epithets of the previous volume are also here in spades, with Spencer invariably referred to as “the blonde viking,” “the big warrior,” and etc, not to mention my favorite of them all, possibly my favorite character description ever: “the tall, bogus milkman” (which actually makes sense within the context of the narrative, but still!). Taken together the whole book reaches a level of jawdropping absurdity that puts it on the level of satire or spoofery – again, like Mark Roberts’s just-as-great Soldier For Hire series. The question is whether Winski intended it that way.
But regardless if he did or didn’t, it doesn’t matter – I give The Hitman my highest recommendation. Too bad there were only three volumes…but I guess, like Dean W. Ballenger’s Gannon series, great things come in small doses.
Monday, November 4, 2013
Secret Orders, by H. Paul Jeffers
October, 1989 Zebra Books
The awesome cover has you expecting a horror novel, but Secret Orders is in fact a conspiracy thriller, one about a former Nazi who now lives in New York City and the group of people who try to bring him and his colleagues to justice. Another misleading thing about the novel is that the back cover and first hundred pages make you assume it takes place in 1989, the year of publication; only after page 100 does author Jeffers bother informing us that all of this occurs in 1967!
Secret Orders is also a novel in search of a protagonist. Is it young Daniel Ben Avram, who opens the tale, a young Israeli secret agent who is sent to the US to discern if wealthy and famous arts patron Peter Helder is in fact former SS concentration camp sadist August Grenier? Or is it David Hargreave, a veteran New York homicide detective who takes over the middle portion of the novel? Or finally is it Alexander Somerfield, a portly former reporter and CIA agent who now makes his living writing mysteries? (The back cover pronounces Somerfield as the hero of the tale; humorously, he doesn’t even appear until about 200 pages in.)
Another issue with the novel is that it starts off so great and then settles in to become for the most part a tepid and bland crawl. But that opening is something else. Young Daniel is summoned from Tel Aviv into Jerusalem, where he meets with his handler Ammon and a famous general, who give Daniel his mission – going undercover to New York City and finding Helder. Here we have several chapters made up of backstory provided by various witnesses, each who tells us who Helder was in the war and how he got his sordid kicks.
Before the war Helder was also into the occult, and after joining both the Thule and Vril societies he became obsessed with harnessing the “vril” power from other humans. So we learn that, while he ran the concentration camp, Helder would have young men stripped down and shackled up, hook up electrodes to their testicles, force them to masturbate, and then switch on the electricity when they orgasmed! Oh, and while doing this he’d wear a leather face mask with zipper slits for the mouth.
And it keeps on going…given that Helder’s gay and Daniel’s posing undercover, this means that Daniel has to move through the NYC underworld of gay bars. Yes, there’s even a scene where he buys leather chaps and etc to complete the look, in the hopes of sauntering into one of the clubs and catching Helder’s eye! Of course it works, and soon Daniel is hanging around with Helder, going with him to fancy restaurants and the occasional leather club; a recurring joke is Daniel’s certainity that Helder will soon make the expected pass at him, but Daniel’s not certain how he’ll react.
Just when it’s all getting nice and lurid the narrative jumps over to David Hargreave, an old cop who is close to retirement. All the lurid stuff evaporates from the novel, along with Daniel himself, who just disappears – it isn’t until nearly the very end that we discover what happened to him. Meanwhile Helder is dead, hanging nude from the secret dungeon beneath his Manhattan art gallery, a leather zipper mask covering his face.
This sequence is a bit trying. Hargreave is a fine character, but after the forward momentum of the opening several chapters with Daniel, this slower-paced police procedural stuff just brings the novel to a dead halt. Even more damning, Jeffers repeats a ton of information here, with Hargreave methodically discovering stuff about Helder that we readers already know.
There’s even an extended bit where Ammon, who has come to NYC looking for Daniel, finds Daniel’s journal, and Jeffers writes out most of the entries in the book – taken word-for-word from earlier scenes with Daniel! My assumption is that this is yet another indication of Zebra’s bizarre policy of making their paperback originals nice and long; Secret Orders could stand to loose a hundred or so pages, easy.
Another character here who gets a bunch of narrative time is a grubby reporter, who mostly serves as the impetus for getting Alexander Somerfield into the tale. Castle style, Somerfield is wealthy from his writing but still enjoys digging up real-life crimes and whatnot. A former spy, Somerfield was more along the lines of a courier, never getting into any sort of action or trouble. In fact what most draws him to the Helder case is the potential for new book material.
I bring up Castle for a reason. While it’s an okay show, I’ve noticed that, for a world-famous author, Castle never friggin writes. For that matter, the son of a bitch never even mentions books! In fact the whole show presents a misguided view of the author’s life – don’t be interested in books and seldom if ever write, and you too can be a wealthy novelist. But anyway, as it so happens Secret Orders proves how boring Castle would be if its titular character was more engaged in the act of writing and the world of books – because, my friends, Alexander Somerfield is a snoozer of a protagonist.
For one, the dude is almost a clone of Hargreave (who himself was a well-read sort prone to dropping literary allusions and esoteric quotations), but secondly, all Somerfield talks about or thinks about are books. I mean, it’s cool in a way, I myself am a book lover and all, but honestly if I was investigating a case where a former Nazi was found hanging nude with a leather mask on his face, I really don’t think I’d be walking around quoting Fitzgerald or Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
What I mean to say is, Alexander Somerfield is a boring protagonist for such a compelling plot – at least, a plot that starts off so compelling. The pulp material calls for a pulp protagonist, and Daniel fit the bill nicely. Like me you will no doubt miss him when he disappears from the text. He is much better than the overfed, Sherlock Holmes-obsessed bore who eventually takes his place. The Vril Society stuff, Helder’s occult background and interests, etc, all of it goes away and instead we get long scenes of Somerfield standing around and thinking about this or that book.
Which brings me back to the plot – it eventually develops that Helder was a member of the Atlantis Club, a global membership of the uber-wealthy which sort of seems based on the Freemasons. The back cover has you expecting a story about an underground society of former Nazis who have infiltrated the US government (ie Operation Paperclip, or even the COMCON storyline), but this is not to be – all such promise is lost as the novel settles into repetition and blandness. It becomes a simple murder mystery instead of a conspiracy thriller, as Somerfield tries to figure out who killed Helder.
Maybe Jeffers was going for something here – it’s hard not to notice how the youthful and brash Daniel is replaced by not one but two protagonists who are over-the-hill and heavyset, older men who are veteran thinkers and more prone to using their heads to solve a case. And really, bringing such “real-life” type protagonists to a pulpy spy tale is fine…as long as you don’t open the tale with talk about the Thule and Vril Societies and a dude in a leather mask who fries young men while they masturbate…I mean, that just sets the reader up for a whole different sort of novel than something “real-life.”