Monday, November 18, 2013

Psycho Squad #1: Execution Night


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.

9 comments:

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Wow, your mention of Ultimate Evil brought back memories of reading that book when it first came out. That and its crazy cover of that fanged dog. Satanic influence was quite the media rage for a brief time in the 80's.

Marty McKee said...

I have both of these. I thought I had read it, but upon reading your synopsis, I don't think I did. I remember something similar though--it took place in an unfinished high rise maybe?

Unknown said...

Great review of the first volume in this short-lived series...I totally remembr picking it up when serial killer thrillers had become the big thing due to Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. For some reason, I seem to remember Mike Newton being credited as the author...can't remember if I read that in a Writer's Digest article or somewhere else. My memory is fuzzy though...there have been a lot of beers in my life between the time when I read that novel upon its initial release and today!

AndyDecker said...

Mike Newton did the VICAP series back then. Think Criminal Minds just with two male agents.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey guys, thanks for the comments.

Kurt, I wasn't familiar with that particular edition of Ultimate Evil, but I see now it was the hardcover. If you ever re-read the book, you might want to check out the mass market paperback from 1989, which has a bunch of material that wasn't in the original hardcover. Most importantly it has the revelation that "Manson #2" might've been a convicted contract killer named William Mentzer, who sounds like one scary individual. The craziest thing for me personally is that Maury Terry states that Mentzer lived in Cumberland, Maryland...a "city" the size of a postage stamp that was about 20 minutes from where I grew up!

Marty, I don't recall anything about a high rise...there is a scene like that in Psycho Squad #2, though. I'll have a review of that volume up in a few weeks, but there's a scene in "The Torturer" where a dude falls down an elevator shaft. Do you think you read the second volume?

Unknown, glad to hear you were familiar with this series. Mike Newton is a good guess, as he's definitely inspired by The Ultimate Evil -- in fact his Executioner #124: Night Kill is like a men's adventure version of Maury Terry's book, and even opens with a quote from it. (I'll be posting a review of that one soon as well...) But I'm not sure if it was Newton behind Psycho Squad, as I get the feeling he would've added more action scenes and focused more on the titular squad.

Andy, I've been meaning to start in on the VICAP series for a while now. I plan to start in on #1 soon.

Marty McKee said...

Yeah, I bet I did read #2. I probably owned it first and then picked up #1 later.

Pat said...

Hello Joe,
The author and creator of this series is David H Jacobs writting under a pen name. Some of his other books are the universal monster book series -the Devils Brood, court television's paperback true crime series, the Bug Files, and many movie and television adaptations; over sixty novels to be exact.
I spoke to him today and asked him if Terry's book influenced him and he said it did as well as the original Son of Sam crime spree.

Joe Kenney said...

Pat, thanks a lot for the info! A poster named Martin O'Hearn left a comment on my review of Tracker #7 (http://glorioustrash.blogspot.com/2014/04/tracker-7-shock-treatment.html) that it was also written by David Jacobs, but he wasn't sure about Psycho Squad. It seemed to me though that it was the same writing style as found in Psycho Squad 1 & 2, so thanks a lot for verifying it was in fact the same author.

I also have Jacobs's Univeral Monster novels, but haven't read them yet.

Thanks again!

Pat said...

Hello Joe
The poster is correct. Dave wrote Tracker 7 and 8. Some of the other series he authored under a house name are: The Last Ranger, Slocum, Mc Masters and Big Iron. On a personal note, I really enjoy your blog.