Thursday, June 5, 2014

Israeli Commandos #1: The Aswan Assignment

Israeli Commandos #1: The Aswan Assignment
No month stated, 1974  Manor Books

When Lancer Books when out of business in September 1973, the Enforcer series was in limbo (that is, until Manor Books brought it back in ’75, reprinting the Lancer originals as well as two new installments). In the meantime it appears that Andrew Sugar took his services proper to Manor, and created for them this obscure, four-volume series that was “as timely as today’s headlines,” per the hyperbolic back cover.

Israeli Commandos is much different from The Enforcer, and judging from this first volume, not as good. On the plus side, it’s more action-focused than that earlier series, but on the negative side, it just isn’t as compelling or interesting. This series just has a completely different feel – and hell, protagonist Dov Abrams doesn’t even smoke, which is a huge difference from the cigarette-loving Enforcer books!

Abrams is 28, Israeli born, and a world-class heavyweight boxer. In fact we learn the press has dubbed him “the Israeli Muhammad Ali,” which is just wrong on so many levels. Also, you’d think a top-secret commando would have a less-visible cover, but whatever; every few months Abrams’s handler, The Major, comes out of the woodwork to task him with some impossible mission. Then Abrams shaves off his full beard (the Major’s idea of a disguise), gears up, and goes out into the field to fight for Israel. The series title is plural, but really it would more accurately be called “Israeli Commando,” as Abram works solo, being provided with different contacts on his various assignments.

The current mission, Abrams contacted by the Major seconds after having won a heavyweight match, has our hero venturing into Egypt, where intel reports that Arabic terrorist faction Black February plans to blow up the Aswan Dam. Abrams, an underwater demolitions expert, knows that the dam can’t be blown up by normal means, but the terrorists merely intend to make it appear that the dam was attempted to have been blown up – by Israelis. And to do so they will plant the corpses of two Israeli frogmen there, so it will seem clear that they were behind the plot.

Per the Major’s briefing, Israel isn’t held in high esteem in the current world view, mentioning the “recent” downing of an Egyptian airliner in Israeli airspace (an event which happened in February 1973). Therefore, Black February hopes to sow further dissent against Israel by making it appear that the Israelis tried to blow up the Aswan Dam. Abrams’s mission is to head into Egypt’s Eastern Desert, find the two terrorist convoys which reportedly will be converging on Aswan, and to rescue the two captured Israelis (both of whom are friends of his) who will be turned into decoy corpses as part of the plan. If Abrams can’t save them, he’s to kill them, something which causes much gnashing of teeth…and even the desire to be a smoker!

The middle section is heavy on the desert action, with Abrams parachuting in and hooking up with two young contacts, Chaim and Ben-Al. After lots of camel-riding and sandstorm-evading they come across a group of Black February terrorists, most of them Arabic-American mercenaries. These are old-school terrorists, by the way, more concerned with public opinion than killing innocents; when Abrams poses as a lost American and stumbles into their camp, the terrorist leader requests that, when he returns to civilization, Abrams make it clear that he was saved by Black February. Also throughout the novel there is repeated efforts by the various parties to treat their captives well, and etc. All of which is to say, the entire affair comes off like a gentleman’s sport when compared to the modern day.

Anyway a firefight ensues, and here Sugar proves the major difference between this series and The Enforcer, with Abrams blowing away terrorists with his .357 Magnum and the two contacts whittling them down with Galil rifles. The leader survives, though, and here begins the first instance in which Abrams ensures he’s well tended-to with treatment and bandages. Also here Abrams hooks up with Gershon Yelinga, New York-born and raised soldier who has immigrated to Israel to become one of their top commandos. Older than Abrams by a few decades, Yelinga provides the novel’s humor, poking fun at Abrams amid the mayhem.

Another action scene soon follows, with Abrams using plastique to blow up an Egyptian tank. In the melee the captured American terrorist escapes on a jeep, and Abrams and Yelinga split up, Yelinga heading for Aswan and Abrams for the small town of El-Bemi Saff, where the terrorist has apprently fled. Here Abrams meets up with another contact: Zohra, a fellow sabra (ie Israel-born) who poses as a dancer in an Arabic caf√©, where she sleeps with the owner and clientelle as part of the job. She immediately throws herself on Abrams, telling him he’s the first non-Arab she’s been with in months. Cue a fairly explicit sex scene, though nothing to the level of the early Enforcer volumes. 

Zohra later informs Abrams that not only was the Arab-American who escaped a well-known terrorist who goes by the name Al-Sakr (ie, “The Falcon”), but also that he is behind the entire plot to blow the Aswan Dam. But when the Falcon gets the jump on the two, the book begins to drag, even though it goes from one action sequence to another. It’s all just sort of drawn out. First we get this over-long firefight in Zohra’s apartment, with the Falcon and a few comrades with AK-47s blasting away at the pair, and since Abrams only has 3 bullets in his Magnum, he has to pull off some MacGuyver moves to rig up explosives with whatever junk is at hand.

There follows more plodding stuff as Abrams and Zohra first steal a truck and then try to steal a small airplane, to catch up with the perennially-escaping Falcon. While waiting for the plane to be repaired, Abrams and Zohra go at it again, right there on the desert sand. The best action sequence in the novel follows, as they take the plane and, while Abrams flies it, Zohra blasts down at the terrorists from her window with an AK-47. This whole section is pretty gory, with even camels buying it in graphic detail. However Zohra herself gets hit by the flying bullets, and Sugar delivers one of the most comically-overdone deaths of a female protagonist I’ve yet read in a men’s adventure novel:

At four thousand feet, [Abrams] leveled off and reached for Zohra to see how badly she was wounded. But his hand went right through what was left of her face and his fingers scooped out handfuls of bloody brain matter as he quickly withdrew his hand. One of the Arab blasts had caught Zohra in the face and chest, and the once-beautiful and exciting face was gone, shattered into red splotches covering the inside of the cockpit. Where her sensuous eyes had been, there were now empty sockets. Empty holes where blood puddled and congealed. 

All of which is to say, she’s dead. Abrams crashes the plane and survives it, managing to fling himself out with Magnum blazing, but he still gets caught…and wakes up in a room facing the Aswan dam, where the Falcon and an obese comrade have Abrams tied to a chair in rawhide ropes. They’ve also captured Yelinga, who is similarly tied. The two are informed that when the rawhide dries, Abrams and Yelina will die horrific, excruciating deaths. However Black February has been whittled down to just three men, and the Falcon goes off with the third member to plant the bombs underwater. 

It’s the climax, but it’s just kind of boring. Abrams and Yelinga get loose and appropriate scuba gear, using icepicks to kill the frogmen terrorists. One of them of course is the Falcon, and it’s one of the more anticlimactic villain deaths I’ve ever read; even Abrams feels disappointed, and jumps back in the water to confirm that not only the Falcon is dead, but also that it was Abrams himself who killed him! The two captured Israeli frogmen are saved, the plan is thwarted, and that’s that.

One of the main problems with The Aswan Assignment is Dov Abrams himself; he just comes off as too rough around the edges, too immature and prone to throwing temper tantrums. It seems like every other paragraph Sugar is informing us of Abrams’s “bitching” and “cursing” about some setback or inconvenience. There are many moments where he’ll curse and mutter to himself for like an entire paragarph before he comes up with an idea. I mean, he just comes off like an annoying hothead, and he’s nowhere in the category of Alex Jason, who was actually an interesting protagonist.

Sugar’s writing, which I usually consider to be great so far as the genre goes, comes off as uninspired. Despite the plethora of action (at least when compared to the Enforcer books), The Aswan Assignment just plods along, with nothing really making it stand out. That being said, I’ll still of course be sure to read the ensuing three volumes.

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