Monday, July 28, 2014

The Revenger #2: Fire In The Streets

The Revenger #2: Fire In The Streets, by Jon Messmann
June, 1974  Signet Books

A year after the events of The Revenger, mule-headed hero Ben Martin now lives as “Ben Markham” in Chicago, denying himself memories of his former life and just trying to earn a living as a manager at a meat-processing factory. Soon enough though he’s once again going up against the Mafia, in a novel that almost comes off like a Xerox copy of its predecessor.

Just as The Revenger opened with Ben discovering mobsters lurking around his shop, so too does Fire In The Streets, with the exception that this time Ben Martin himself has nothing to lose in the bargain. It’s not his store and it’s not his family that’s put in harm’s way due to his rash actions, all of which serves to make the reader eventually harbor ill-will against this “hero.” But anyway, just as in that previous installment, Ben mauls the intruders, hanging each of them on meathooks.

The stooges work for Nick Carboni, a Chicago capo who is in the middle of a “business arrangment” with Ben’s boss, Jordon Alwyn, owner of Alwyn’s Beef Products. But Ben Martin knows how the mob operates, and knows that even though they appear to be working on the level, eventually they will make life hell for the Alywyns. I forgot to mention, Ben also has the hots for Jordon’s sexy wife Valery (yes, the couple’s really named “Jordon” and “Valery”). Whereas the previous novel traded on marriage, this one’s theme is all about infidelity, with Carboni constantly fighting with his wife and running off to his blonde mistress, Julie Egan, and Jordon and Valery fighting endlessly.

Also, Messmann takes a page from Tony DeStefano, who wrote himself out of a similar corner in Mondo #2; just like the protagonist of that series, Ben Martin clearly seemed to die in the final page of The Revenger. So for this sequel, just as DeStefano did in his own sequel, Messmann tones down the seriousness of Ben’s wounds in the previous book, having it that he was “only” shot three times in the abdomen. In a brief flashback we learn that he was fished out of the Hudson by a slightly-chubby nurse who secretly took Ben back to her apartment and tended him back to life.

Despite the expected romance (and again Messmann delivers several explicit sex scenes throughout the novel), Ben insisted he had to leave New York, and eventually came to Chicago, where he now works as a manager in an establishment similar to the one he once ran in New York. But the Mafia is here as well, and as in the previous novel Ben continues to indulge in his “obsession” with fighting them, no matter how much trouble or misery he causes for those close to him.

To wit, he refuses to back down when Jordon Alwyn confronts him about that fight in the opening pages, as a result driving a further wedge between Jordon and Valery, as Mrs. Alwyn appears to harbor certain feelings for Ben as well. She also owns sixty percent of the company, which serves for further strain for the couple. Anyway, returning home one night Ben’s ambushed by three mobsters, and ends up killing all of them, which really sets off Carboni, who demands that Alwyn fire him immediately.

Instead of packing his bags and leaving, Ben instead takes over for a close friend who also works at the company and was scheduled to drive a rig across state; Ben is certain the mobsters will try to hijack or at least wreck the rig, as a sign of its displeasure with Alwyn (again, displeasure over events Ben himself has caused). And he’s right; a car comes after him, guns blazing, and Ben ends up crashing the truck right overtop it, easly jumping out of his crashing rig without a scratch.

Now it’s war, and Ben realizes he must once again become the Revenger (not that he ever calls himself this). Meantime he has sex with Valery, who comes over to throw herself on him. Given that Ben was just fired, this makes for some pretty fitting payback, screwing the boss’s hot wife. At any rate he again does exactly as in the previous book, renting out some anonymous slums downtown and buying a few handguns and rifles from stores. Once again our protagonist doesn’t resort to fancy weaponry, expressly avoiding automatics so as not to “harm the innocent” – as if he doesn’t harm them enough on his own! I mean, would you be surprised to learn that his good friend, the one who was supposed to drive that rig, is eventually murdered by Carboni’s thugs??

One thing that elevates Fire In The Streets above The Revenger is that here there is much less pathos; whereas in the previous book Ben Martin took quite a while to become once again the killing machine he was in ‘Nam, here he’s ready posthaste to kick some shit. This adds a fun layer to the novel, with Ben marveling over how “easy” it is to kill Carboni’s stupid goons, and Martin later calling the man himself to promise him he’ll die soon, too. But again, Ben comes off as the sick one, as this is not his fight, and indeed Jordon Alwyn is presented as such a spineless sap that you feel little sympathy for him anyway. Clearly, Ben’s unwillingness to back down causes more misery for Alwyn’s employees and family than anything Carboni might have planned.

As in the previous book Ben pulls off a series of daring public hits, first blowing away some Carboni thugs as they come out of an Italian restaurant. Then he gets more when some of them come to round up blonde bimbo Julie Egan, a scene which has Ben gunning each of them down as they stand beside the screaming girl, whom he lets live. Meantime Ben keeps on banging Mrs. Alwyn, who is already planning a future with Ben Martin – plus she’s figured out who he really is, having followed the newspaper stories a year before and easily piecing it together that “Ben Markham” and Ben Martin are one and the same.

Another figure from Ben’s past returns: Don Gennosanti, the elderly New York capo who tried to make peace with Ben in the first book. Gennosanti calls Carboni, insisting that he is playing this all wrong, and also the Don is certain this is once again Ben Martin at work. Also by novel’s end we see that the Don has actually started to like Ben Martin (he even drinks a toast to him on the final page), so this will hopefully serve up for a subplot that continues in the next volumes.

There are actually fewer “action scenes” in Fire In The Streets than in the first book, with the highlight being a bit where Ben is actually caught in a lame Carboni trap. But Ben is prepared, with a pair of derringers strapped beneath his belt with rubber bands; the sequence is entertaining, especially because it’s the first time yet in the series that Ben himself is in danger, but it all comes off too easy for him because the mobsters once again make every mistake he expected they would.

Even the finale is short on thrills, with Ben stealing yet another rig and strapping a bunch of dynamite to it, then steering the thing for a head-on collision with Carboni’s fortified house. But Messmann relays the sequence from the perspective of Carboni and his wife; the woman, beaten by Carboni throughout the novel, has herself turned to Ben Martin’s side, and per the Revenger’s request she keeps Carboni “occupied” so he’ll be in the house at this particular time.

Given the lack of action and the preponderance of literary stuff, with lots and lots of soul-plumbing and introspection, it occurs to me that Jon Messmann was trying to write a “real” novel here, just as he did in the previous book. I just don’t think this style gibes well with the men’s adventure genre. In fact Messmann’s writing throughout is very reminiscent of Burt Hirschfeld, with the same sort of “serious” turns of phrase that veer right over the line into pretension.

Fire In The Streets comes in at a mere 135 pages, but it has some of the smallest print I’ve ever read in a novel. But even so, even despite the lack of action and the focus on introspection and word-painting, I still enjoyed the novel, and look forward to the next book, with “hero” Ben Martin already disappearing into the shadows on the final pages, ready to go someplace else and take on a new identity.


Grant said...

I of course have a real thing about femme fatales, even if you don't automatically expect them from these vigilante type books the way you do some other adventure stories. So the moment I read that Alwyn had a "bimbo" girlfriend, I couldn't help hoping she was somehow part of the plot and that the "bimbo" bit was partly a cover! And from what you describe, that's what happens.
Of course, being a fan of femme fatales in places like the early DESTROYER books, I also couldn't help hoping that she would try to seduce Ben himself, and also being "disappointed" that she doesn't get treated ruthlessly by him (again, like the Remo character and most of HIS villainesses).

Joe Kenney said...

Hey Grant, thanks for the comment. Actually it's villain Carboni who has the bimbo girlfriend, and she isn't a femme fatale at all. Instead she runs away as soon as Ben Martin makes his hit on the thugs who come to pick her up. There aren't any of the female villains you and I like in this one.

If you're looking for a character along those lines, though, check out TNT #6: Ritual Of Blood if you haven't already (here's my review of it:; that one's filled with female villains as well as a main femme fatale who is like a female version of the series protagonist.

Grant said...

Thank you.

Johny Malone said...

The great writer of femme fatales was Gérard de Villiers, who died last year. Highly recommended if you want to know bad girls.