Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin (aka The Revenger #3)

Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin, by Joseph Hedges
February, 1975  Pyramid Books
(Original UK publication 1973)

The success of Don Pendleton's The Executioner was so widespread that Imitation Executioners began to pop up even overseas, this being one such example. Starting life in the UK as “The Revenger,” this series ran for thirteen volumes and documented British mob-buster John Stark’s war against “The Company,” ie the Syndicate-types who killed his girlfriend.

Pyramid Books brought the series over to the US (only reprinting the first six volumes), changing the title to Stark so as not to be confused with Jon Messmann’s Revenger series. Actually I think Stark is a better title, as it gives the series a Parker vibe – and perhaps author Terry Harknett (aka “Joseph Hedges”) was going for a Richard Stark feel in the first place, with an obvious reference in his protagonist’s last name but also because The Company is very much like Parker’s nemeses “The Outfit.”

Another change Pyramid made was to the covers, gracing them with pretty cool drawings of a shades-wearing Stark blasting various pistols. (The original UK editions featured disturbing photo covers of murdered topless women – and they say Americans are sick!!) Pyramid also changed the text to American-style double quotation marks for dialog (I’ve always suspected that the British single quotation mark was one of the things that lead to the Revolutionary War). Yet for some reason Pyramid failed to change the footnotes in the book. Occasionally an asterisk in the text will tell us to check out, say, “The Revenger: Funeral Rites”. In other words, in these footnotes Pyramid didn’t change “The Revenger” to “Stark,” which must’ve caused for some reader confusion.

Anyway, this third volume picks up immediately after the previous one, with Stark and a lithe redhead named Amanda escaping Company gunmen in Southern France. Apparently in that previous book Stark took out a Company bigwig here in France, and after a very bloody firefight in the opening pages of The Chinese Coffin he and Amanda capture a Cadillac and get away. Amanda must’ve only been introduced in that previous book, as we learn she just met Stark a few days ago, and was engaged to a Company man before Stark blew into town.

Harknett also wrote the Edge series (“Joseph Hedges” being that titular character’s full name, hence the in-joke of Harknett’s pseudonym for this series), which was known for its graphic violence. In this opening firefight Harknett proves that Stark will be much the same, with Stark doling out gory kills with a .357 Magnum and a .38 – like the best ‘70s crime fiction, the battles here are mostly fought with revolvers. Amanda even gets to take out one of the gunmen, shooting him in the back as she hides in a slime-filled swamp. Throughout the novel, there is lots of graphic detail about exploding heads and guts, and Harknett never shirks on the violence factor.

I’ve said before how I find most British pulp to be a little antiseptic, but Harknett doesn’t come off as prudish at all, delivering not only graphic gore but also some explicit sex scenes. In fact right after the gory firefight he proceeds directly to the sex, with Amanda showing off her oral skills for a lucky Stark. Amanda’s a pure ‘70s kind of gal, wearing a clinging tunic that even has a ring-pull zipper, and she gets off (so to speak) on Stark’s dangerous life. (Harknett also provides the incidental detail that Amanda is shall we say bare-shaven, which must’ve been really out of the norm in the early ‘70s; no wonder Harknett felt the need to mention it.)

Stark by the way is a grim kind of guy, very abrupt and always “on the job,” but occasionally he goes into “revenger mode” (just like Messmann’s protagonist, in fact!), where he’s even more deadly. My only problem with the character is that Harknett has him in his mid-twenties, which I think is much too young for a men’s adventure protagonist, especially one from the ‘70s – they should be square-jawed Marlboro Men types who are around thirty-five years old. We learn through the excessive detailing (more of which later) that Stark is also sporting a “bandito” moustache, apparently grown for the previous volume’s adventure, though he shaves it off midway through this one.

The Chinese Coffin operates more like a ‘70s crime novel than your typical men’s adventure offering, with a small cast of characters all converging in a convoluted plot. For as Stark and Amanda get a flight out of France courtesy a gay American friend of Amanda (cue lots of homophobia courtesy Stark, to the point where the reader thinks to himself “hmmm”), we are informed that a group of Chinese are also flying out of Tibet, making their slow way to Lebanon, where a company bigwig (strangely, Harknett never capitalizes “company,” so I’ll stop doing so as well) named Riachi is about to trade them a few million pounds worth of diamonds in exchange for uncut heroin.

Riachi is a pulpy villain, an obese lecher who lives in an ultramodern house in Lebanon where he caters to his every depraved whim. The head “executive” of the Middle East area of the company, Riachi apparently spends most of his time at play, in particular sampling the young virgins who are trained in company clinics to curse in multiple languages before being shipped to harems; Riachi takes them for a test run before sending them off to their various designations. At the moment he has a pair of Lebanese teens at his disposal, and Harknett serves up lots of lurid, exploitative stuff here, but still wrapped up in the overly-literary style of the series (and British pulp in general).

In addition to Riachi there’s Fairborne, an American company man who is bringing in the diamonds. For reasons unknown he stops off in Majorca on his way to Lebanon, where he bumps uglies with the wonderfully-named Kiki Anson, a lithe “Eurasian” gal who works as a high-class escort and provides the company with information as a side-venture. And guess what, Majorca is just where Stark happens to be flying! So the thrust of this particular installment is built around coincidence, but it’s no big deal. And anyway Stark only discovers the company is here by accident, after dumping the gay pilot at the airport he and Amanda head for the guy’s villa, Amanda hoping that Stark can at least apologize for how he treated the guy.

This gradually leads into a bloody confrontation in which a handful of people gorily die, including poor old Amanda, you won’t be surprised to discover. But Kiki Anson makes off with the briefcase of diamonds (including the darkly humorous detail of her running over Amanda’s corpse and beheading it), and Stark, in his grief and rage, eventually figures out that there was something special about that briefcase. Interrogating and killing several more Majorca-based company men, Stark finally puts it together that the briefcase was stuffed with diamonds. And his war chest is running thin, so this is perfect opportunity for him to get more money and also fulfill his pledge to kill company representatives.

John Stark is different from Mack Bolan and most other Mafia busters in that he could care less about helping society as a whole. Stark is very much only concerned with himself and his own vengeance. If his attacks happen to staunch some nefarious company scheme, so much the better, but that’s never his overriding goal. He just wants to kill company scum, but knows there are ultimately too many of them; he also knows he’s on a death quest, and could care less about this as well. While this is a “believable” mindset for such a character, it does make Stark seem to be a pretty self-centered prick. Hell, he even brushes off Amanda’s death, never once reprimanding himself for having inadvertently caused it. “She knew the risks,” he tells himself, and that’s that.

Like Mack Bolan, though, wherever Stark goes he finds trouble, and after blasting away company men in Majorca he gets word that Kiki Anson has just booked passage on a flight to Cyprus. Off Stark goes in pursuit, getting in an instanst skirkmish with company goons in Cyprus. In an entertaining sequence Stark blows up a few company cars and escapes without a scratch, even stopping for the hell of it to pick up a pair of American tourists who are checking out Cyprus. What with the rampant country-hopping, the Stark series almost comes off like a Eurotrash equivalent of The Executioner.

Stark tracks Kiki Anson to Cyprus, where she’s hooked up with her apparent lover, Thalia. Kiki is in no way a femme fatale-type, and indeed is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; turns out she took the diamonds in a dazed state, and thus is happy to give Stark whatever he wants. But the company is already in pursuit, and the climax features an overly-long sequence of a pair of Greek brothers who come after all of them. One thing that must be said about Harknett is that he is a positively unsentimental author, and will kill off characters without compunction. Seriously, if you are a character in this novel and your name isn’t “Stark,” odds are you’re going to die.

Oh, and meanwhile we learn that the old plane carrying the Chinese group and their heroin has crashed, outside of Lebanon. After a gory battle there in Cyprus, Stark bluffs his way onto a Riachi-owned helicopter and goes to the site of the crash, where Riachi is about to make a deal with the Palestinian soldiers who have discovered and thus confiscated the crashed plane. Riachi will give them the diamonds in exchange for the heroin. Instead it leads to a sort of anticlimactic finale in which Stark sets off a skirmish between Riachi’s enforcers and the Palestinians, while Stark himself hides in the crashed plane until it’s safe.

Harknett is a fine writer, and some of the deadpan dialog he gives Stark is hilarious (not to mention the puns he devises to close several chapters). But man does he overwrite. There is just endless description and detail in this novel, with huge, thick chunks of paragraphs on each and every page describing in copious detail each and every little thing. After a while it gets to be a drag, and this is something a reviewer should never admit, but I found that skimming portions of The Chinese Coffin resulted in a much more fluid – and enjoyable – read. Seriously, once you’ve read one several-line paragraph about what a cloud looks like, you’ve read them all.

So while The Chinese Coffin was enjoyable for the most part, and certainly violent and gory, it came off as more of a trying and tiring read than it should have. Also, Stark himself is a bit of a cipher, and you don’t root for him as you would other men’s adventure protagonists, at least not in this volume. That being said, I do have a few more of these Stark novels, as well as the final volume of the series (only published in the UK), so I’ll be checking them out.


FreeLiverFree said...

The Edge series has a lot of black humor in it as well. Also, Edge is as much an anti-hero as Stark seems to be. Concern with mostly himself.

N.Brown said...

I have one of these - Mexican Mourning. Seem to remember enjoying it, a good Executioner rip-off. Not a patch on the Edge books though, especially the first 20, some of the best pulp I ever read. Harknett does overwrite a bit but it's part of his charm and you do get used to it - the nihilism, violence and gallows humour make up for it anyway.

If you think British pulp can be sterile you need to read some Laurence James, he is quite the opposite! Generally a snappier writer than Harknett too - shorter paragraphs, less exposition. Most of his Herne the Hunter entries are first class, and the Crow series takes the gore, sleaze and general bad-assery to new levels.

I'm also pretty sure you'd dig any of the Angus Wells - penned Westerns, again, violence sleaze humour and not a stiff upper lip in sight...

RJR said...

Terry also wrote Police Procedurals but is, of course, best known for the "Edge": and "Steele" books. he still has a very loyal following, and is active on line with his blog.


AndyDecker said...

The covers of the british edition are something else. Unbelievable stuff.

Mr Harknett did an astounding body of work. Edge always merits a re-read.

James is a good recommendation. You already did his novel Cut. Some of his westerns are grim, nihilistic stories.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Brad Mengel said...

Hi Joe,
The story I heard was that Sphere had the licence to reprint The Executioner but lost it after only publishing the first few books (Corgi took over the British editions) To replace those books they approached Harknett to produce The Revenger. The covers were very similar to their Executioner covers.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey, Brad, great to hear from you. Thanks for the info!

Felicity Walker said...

I’ve been editing a zine for the last six years and occasionally receive a book for review. With two of the books, I found that it was a much more enjoyable read if I only read the scenes with the villain. Come to think of it, that was also true of Greg Benford’s SF novel “Eater.”