Monday, April 14, 2014

Tracker #7: Shock Treatment

Tracker #7: Shock Treatment, by Ron Stillman
April, 1992  Charter-Diamond Books

According to Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction, Don Bendell wrote the first six volumes of the awful Tracker series, but was fired by publisher Charter-Diamond when he requested to be credited under his own name, rather than the “Ron Stillman” house name. Why anyone would want to put their actual name on such an execrable series is beyond me, but still, that’s one dickheaded move for Charter-Diamond to pull.

And yet, you won’t be surprised to learn that this seventh volume of the series, penned by some still-unknown writer, is one whole hell of a lot better than Bendell’s contributions. I’m not saying Shock Treatment is great or anything, but it didn’t make me want to go out and kick a few puppies, like Bendell’s novels did. In fact, the very reason that I couldn’t take anymore of his novels is what lead me to skip ahead to this installment, just to see how another author handled Natty “Asshole” Tracker.

In true “freelance author” spirit, this “Ron Stillman” quite clearly has never read one of the earlier Tracker novels and treats Shock Treatment as if it’s the first volume of the series. Tracker is much less of a dickhead, finally, and Stillman even makes him friggin’ human, if you can believe that. While Tracker’s still a one-man army with a tech-savy background (and a fighter pilot to boot), we learn here that, unlike in Bendell’s Tracker #1, Tracker was just part of a team that came up with his high-tech optical gadgets. 

Tracker’s godlike status is thankfully toned down; once again he’s truly blind, and uses his overly-described sci-fi sunglasses to see via SONAR and video inputs and other stuff. Stillman must’ve read a few issues of Popular Science, because the novel is filled with lots of incidental detail on Tracker’s software and how it operates. One neat addition is an “ATR” feature Tracker can activate, where the artificial eyes will constantly scan his surroundings for whatever it is Tracker is searching for. 

Another big change is the tone of the series. Gone is the stupid, sophomoric nature of the previous books, replaced with what at times comes off like a Hard Case Crime-esque vibe. Seriously! Tracker here isn’t an unstoppable commando who counts even the US President as a fan; he’s more of a shadow warrior, a covert operations type who prefers to stay in the shadows and only launches into action when necessary. Even the plot is more down-to-earth, with Tracker in Mountain City, Colorado, to try to prevent an old friend named Jeff Purdy from committing murder.

The first 30 or so pages are quite slow-moving, with Tracker sort of lurking around and stalking the citizens of Mountain City with his high-tech eyes. While this Ron Stillman is actually a pretty good author, he does tend to page-fill and wheel-spin, giving unnecessarily detailed background on various places, people, and things.  It gradually develops that Mountain City is a hardscrabble town, recently brought to its knees by a white collar embezzlement scheme which has left the citizens ready to riot. The local police appear to be nothing more than hired goons, bought off by the shucksters who committed the fraud, and Tracker’s come here at the request of Mrs. Purdy, who claims her husband, ruined due to the fraud, might attempt to murder one of the shucksters.

It’s all very mystery-suspense, with Tracker witnessing the assassination as it happens, but due to his fancy eyewear he sees that Jeff Purdy didn’t even pull the trigger. This is one element this version of Ron Stillman greatly excels at, something which always evaded Bendell – how exactly Tracker would benefit from his optical enhancements. Here he can see in infra-red to know that his friend’s pistol never even fired, and also he can detect another body in the next room. Not that this will help Jeff Purdy, who Lee Harvey Oswald-style has been immediately blown away (by the crooked cops, of course), so as to keep his mouth shut.

The action scenes are also more believeable. Tracker uses his martial arts skills to escape certain death, but instead of laying hordes of fighters to waste like in the Bendell books, this fight comes off as very realistic, with the murderous cops impeded by the enclosed space and Tracker using his wits more than his muscles. And Tracker’s escape is a taut sequence which sees him nearly blown away by the actual gunman, who escapes in a getaway car – which is then destroyed by a mysterious van that fires ball lightning!

Tracker himself is almost killed by the occupant of the mysterious van (whom we readers know is the James Bond-esque villain Doctor Shock), and after his own car is destroyed an even more taut sequence ensues in which Tracker has to scale across a canyon wall while the cops are shooting at him. It’s all very First Blood. But these cops are really just thugs, lead by the corrupt Lt. Boyd, whose mountain-sized underling Maggard now wants Tracker’s head on a platter, given that Tracker knocked out a few of Maggard’s teeth with a side kick. This elicits one of the novel’s many humorous moments, when Tracker later discovers one of Maggard’s teeth embedded in his boot.

Whereas the previous Tracker novels tried to be funny but just came off as dumb, there’s actually some genuine humor in Shock Treatment, like Tracker’s infrequent run-ins with a hot dog vendor named Gene. Stillman also delivers some nice, movie-esque banter between Tracker and an apparent femme fatale named Anne, dialog which to me has a bit of a Raymond Obstfeld ring to it. And speaking of that Anne – Tracker believe it or not isn’t a demigod here, and women don’t fall down at his feet! Stillman builds up a nice chemistry between the two, one that’s fueled by barbed insults and mocking put-downs, but utimately goes nowhere, as Anne, the only female in the novel, has just a few lines.

The crime fiction vibe continues as Gene, who turns out to be a smalltime crook who works for a guy named Mitch, takes Tracker to see his boss. Mitch heads up an organization that’s opposed to Lt. Boyd and his goons, and Mitch promises Tracker that he can help him uncover what’s really gone down in Mountain City. Stillman seems pretty adept at bringing the small-town underwold to life, and there follows more dark humor where Mitch and his goons place bets on Tracker and some goon as they fight in Mitch’s bar. But unfortunately this sort of thing gradually takes precedence in the narrative, so that more interesting aspects like Doctor Shock are given short shrift.

In fact, the latter half plays out anticlimatically; developed bad guys like Lt. Boyd and Maggard are perfunctorily disposed of (and not even by Tracker), and more time is spent on a group of inbreeds who attack Mitch’s bar at Boyd’s command. After all this is dealt with, Doctor Shock finally appears, and you wish he had shown up sooner – he turns out to be an egomaniac named Professor Moxon who has a group of “worshippers” who follow him around (Anne one of them), listening enraptured to his outpourings of wisdom. Here we learn the details of the Mountain City fiasco, which all turns out to have been the doings of a Howard Hughes-type named Clayton, whom Shock is gaining vengeance upon, Shock himself having suffered from Clayton's financial plottings.

Tracker’s even given the brush-off in the climax, reduced to sitting under armed guard while Shock fires up a massive lightning generator and destroys Clayton’s far-off retreat, Ultima. But rather than Tracker doing anything, it’s Shock’s own arrogance that does him in, and the lightning generator backfires and everything goes to hell. Shock and his cult fall to their doom, while Tracker gets involved in a protracted fistfight with some random thug. To say it’s all sort of unsatisfying would be an understatement – but still, good grief is it better than the earlier novels in the series.

It’s the same thing I said about Psycho Squad, but I wonder if this “Ron Stillman” was actually Simon Hawke, who wrote the Steele series, which was also published by Charter. Shock Treatment has the same focus on plot and character over action, the same “real-world” vibe, the same tech-savy details, and the same snappy dialog from its underworld characters. Another thing that leads me to think it might be Hawke is that the final few pages of Shock Treatment feature an excerpt from the novel Sons Of Glory, a Simon Hawke paperback original from Charter Books.

Whether or not it was Hawke, I’m pretty certain whoever wrote Shock Treatment is the same person who wrote Psycho Squad #2, as the two books are similar in many respects. I’ll be curious to see if this same author wrote the next volume of Tracker, which turned out to be the last.


Trever Palmer said...

I haven't read this particular book, but just wanted to take a moment to tell you how much I enjoy your excellent reviews. They're fantastic and I've wiled away countless hours here reading them.

I would've e-mailed you this, but couldn't find a route. So...

Keep up the good work!

Joe Kenney said...

Trever, thanks a lot for the comment -- glad you are enjoying the blog!

Martin OHearn said...

I have the author down as David Jacobs--who wrote The Last Rangers future-cop series as Jake Davis, as well as tie-ins novels of "24" and the young adult horror series The Bug Files--but I have no idea at this late date where I got that info.

Joe Kenney said...

Martin, thanks a lot for posting that! I really appreciate the info. I'd love to know if Jacobs also wrote the Psycho Squad -- the style, especially for volume #2, was almost identical to Tracker #7.

Martin OHearn said...

Joe, I haven't find a real author's name for Psycho Squad hidden away anywhere. If the publishers were looking for someone versed in true crime to carry on from the Son of Sam case inspiration you mention for the first one, well, Jacobs later edited a number of paperbacks from True Detective and Court TV.

By the way, I think I may have gotten my earlier information on Jacobs from one of the library reference series like Contemporary Authors or the juvenile literature spin-off, Something About the Author.

S. Michael Wilson said...

I can confirm that the author of Shock Treatment is indeed David Jacobs, the same author of Psycho Squad, The Bug Files, 24 tie-ins, and numerous true crime books.