Monday, September 8, 2014

The Aquanauts #2: Ten Seconds To Zero

The Aquanauts #2: Ten Seconds To Zero, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

The second volume of The Aquanauts is less static than the first, with hero William “Tiger Shark” Martin not only more active in the plot, but also sent on a mission that has world-changing implications. Manning Lee Stokes once again doles out the over-long tale in his own stilted, page-filling style, but it’s a style I do enjoy.

Picking up a few months after Cold Blue Death, in late September (which would mean then that it’s September, 1969), Ten Seconds To Zero opens with several US Polaris nuclear subs being destroyed while on routine patrol around the world. Crusty vet Admiral Hank Coffin, returning from the previous volume, is certain the Russkies have invented an underwater anti-submarine missile. Gradually we learn that Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet might have some leads on this mysterious weapon.

Tiger Shark is picked to gather these leads, the President (clearly identified as Nixon) hedging all his bets on the Secret Underwater Service, for which Martin is the one and only Tiger Shark. (And speaking of which, he’s only referred to as “Tiger” or “Tiger Shark” throughout the entire narrative this time, which again lends the novel a comic book tone.) Tiger is now a Lt. Commander, promoted after his success in the previous volume – but having read that novel, I’m not really sure what exactly he was promoted for. But that’s the military for you.

Tiger takes his high-tech private sub KRAB into the Mediterranean and makes his way for Gaza. Here in a nice sequence he makes a nighttime beach landing and hooks up with a group of Israeli agents who are in continuous warfare with the neighboring Egyptians. They operate out of a massive fortress, built in the 10th Century, and Tiger’s main contact turns out to be an attractive Shin Bet agent named Rebecca Rose, a captain in the Israeli army.

Shin Bet’s leads are a series of photos, lifted during a raid on a USSR-aligned Egyptian force, of what appears to be a missile-launching platform, codenamed “Sea Serpent.” Tiger is certain this is the anti-sub device he seeks. Rebecca gives him a ride back to the beach…where she proceeds to give him a whole ‘nother sort of ride. Stokes sets up the expected sex scene with Rebecca’s revelation that her husband was killed two years ago, and she hasn’t had a man since, and she’s told herself that the next man she has will be a stranger. Tiger fits the bill.

Stokes definitely has a sadistic streak, because after the somewhat-explicit sex, Rebecca drives off…and right into a land mine! Tiger mourns her bloody corpse for all of a few seconds and then swims back out to KRAB. He even subdues his desire to gain vengeance on the Egyptians who set the mine, as such actions would go against his orders. As in the previous book, Tiger is very much a Navy man and only does what he is ordered to do.

In fact, Tiger spends the vast majority of Ten Seconds To Zero in KRAB, piloting it around the Mediterranean and Black seas. The thing sounds for all the world like the spaceship in Barbarella, or at least that’s how I picture it, with two “contoured chairs” in front of the viewscreen and even a “small galley” with gear lockers, fridges, and etc. All it needs is a quadraphonic stereo system and shag carpeting.

There is more action this time as well, though not too much of it. First there’s a tense sequence where Tiger discovers the Sea Serpent base, and must navigate a barbed wire maze built around it, set his bombs, and fight off a Russian scuba diver before his oxygen tanks run out. There’s another neat bit where he has to cut away the submarine nets across the Bosporus, leading into the Black Sea; Stokes adds an eerie tone to this, with Tiger discovering the bloated corpse of an executed woman floating nearby.

Once in the Black Sea Tiger’s second mission (after the destruction of the Sea Serpent) is the rescue of Nadine Basiloff, young and beautiful wife of the old man who invented the missile system, Gregor Basiloff. The man wants to defect to the West, but will only do so if his wife comes along; meanwhile, the Russians have separated the couple, keeping Nadine for the past two years as a captive in a lush villa off of the Black Sea.

In the latter half of the novel Stokes suddenly thinks he’s writing a Gothic, with lots of descriptions of the hauntedly beautiful island prison of Nadine Basiloff, and her certainty that the sadistic Soviet commander who oversees the place has decided to rape her. And the man does, demanding Nadine attend dinner with him that evening while the rest of the island staff has been called away. Conveniently, he attempts to rape Nadine just as black-garbed commandos raid the villa, CIA-hired mercenaries who have been briefed by Commander Tom Greene, Tiger’s main contact and another character from the first volume, though with much less “screen time” this novel.

Stokes adds some arbitrary but weird details here, like the fact that Tiger, when he swims out of KRAB to the villa to get Nadine, is greased up to aid his swimming and is wearing nothing but a jock strap! He also has Nadine, rescued right after the sadist began stripping off her clothes, in nothing but a girdle and stocking garters. Believe it or not, Stokes does not write the expected sex scene between Tiger and Nadine, but he lets you know in the final paragraph of the novel that it’s about to happen, and soon.

The finale is a bit underwhelming, though very tense for Tiger and Nadine. In an overlong sequence we have President Nixon and Admiral Coffin on a line to Moscow, with Nixon bluffing the Russians into thinking the US has a top-secret nuclear sub which is now in the Black Sea and will strike Moscow if the Sea Serpents are not destroyed. Of course there is no sub, only a high-tech device Tiger uses to augment KRAB, which will make it appear like a massive nuclear vessel to the Russian scanning devices. 

The title comes into play because the President has given Russia one hour to accede to his demands, and while they dither in Moscow Tiger’s busy sweating it out in KRAB, racing around the ocean floor and evading various Russian ships that are looking for him. Nadine is there, too, panicking on one of those “contour chairs” and now dressed in one of Tiger’s sweaters. It isn’t until ten seconds before the hour’s end that Moscow agrees to the demands, leaving Tiger and Nadine to celebrate being alive in their own adulterous way in KRAB. (No worries about old Basiloff getting upset, as Stokes often informs us that he and his wife are not intimate in the least.)

So while there isn’t much violence or sex, and what little we do get isn’t very explicit or graphic at all – and while the pages are padded out a bit too much – Ten Seconds To Zero is still pretty enjoyable, and definitely better than its predecessor. It’s not the greatest men’s adventure novel ever written, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from Manning Lee Stokes, and your enjoyment of his ponderous style will determine whether or not you’re entertained by this second installment of The Aquanauts.


Grant said...

I'm sure a lot of people would get a big laugh out of a heroic Richard Nixon being worked into the story. Though you have to admit, it's a lot more original than hearing about one more COMEDY with a CROOKED Richard Nixon. Besides, many of those people have the opposite attitude when one of "their" presidents is given a heroic role in a story, whereas it's all the same to me no matter which one it is.

Was a non-fictional president ever a very common thing in these Men's Adventure books?

FreeLiverFree said...

Nixon had some genuine achievements during his presidency. It just happen he was also a crook.

In the Destroyer, the president is one of the few people who know the existence of the secret organization CURE. While he's never named in story, you can usually figure out which one is he. CURE in story is the reason Nixon resigned since they more or less threaten him to do so. The Destroyer series made fun of all the presidents, but the Democrats more than the Republicans.