Monday, September 22, 2014

The Hunter #1: Scavenger Kill

The Hunter #1: Scavenger Kill, by Ralph Hayes
January, 1975  Leisure Books

One of the last men’s adventure series Leisure Books published in the ‘70s, The Hunter ran for five volumes and, like other Leisure (and Belmont-Tower) publications, the volume numbers were eventually removed from the titles. Author Ralph Hayes was credited under his own name; Hayes was another of those prolific pulp authors of the era, but this is the first novel of his I’ve read.

Scavenger Kill is very much an opening installment, with hero John Yard deciding here, after much internal probing, to become a justice-seeking vigilante. We learn that Yard was a Major in ‘Nam but went AWOL after he got sick of the unjust war; now he lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he makes his living as a professional hunter who assists and instructs vacationing foreigners who want to see what it’s like to be a “great white hunter.”

Yard’s job seems to suck; in the first pages he’s already in a life or death situation, after his spineless client gutshoots a lioness, which hides in the shrubs. Now Yard has to lure it out, putting his life in danger, because the authorities insist that you finish off your prey. Hayes has no qualms with baldly “foreshadowing” plot developments in the most obvious way possible, with Yard for no reason at all suddenly thinking of his old ‘Nam pal Joe Alger, who now lives in New York.

And guess what? Alger is having some tough times. He and his wife Holly have just had a baby boy, and over the past few weeks have watched in shock as it has developed some very inhuman characteristics. For one it has sprouted hair everywhere, and also it has claws. In an unsettling sequence Holly visits a doctor, only to learn that the baby is in fact not really human, its chromosones having been affected by an experimental pregnancy drug Holly took called Moricidin.

The doctor tells Holly that the drug has been banned in Europe, due to similar issues, and is being removed from the US market as well. Children born from it don’t live long, and never ascend beyond an animalistic state. It’s all really bizarre and off-putting, especially when Hayes further amps up the vibe by having a dazed Holly go home, drown the baby in bathwater, and then jump off the roof of her building!

Unfortunately the rest of Scavenger Kill doesn’t really match these lurid heights. Hayes is very much a “meat and potatoes” sort of writer, not just in how he only tells you what you need to know, but also how he doesn’t really do anything outrageous or unexpected. For that matter, the villain behind Moricidin is a French Canadian billionaire named Maurice Lavalle, and despite being presented as a cunning mastermind, Hayes basically writes him as a loan shark or something, just this overgrown bully who threatens everyone and never once displays the smarts that caused him to be so rich.

Hayes further shows his ease with shoehorning coincidence into the narrative; Yard’s best bud, a Kenyan native named Moses Ngala, just happens to be trying to track down Maurice Lavalle himself, due to the man’s poaching in parts of Kenya and beyond. Moses is a private eye, but once was a cop in Nairobi and received his training in London. Now he goes around calling everyone “old man” and serves as Yard’s partner and voice of reason once Scavenger Kill gets moving.

After visiting a shellshocked Joe Alger in New York, Yard vows to bring Lavalle to justice. The story is presented that since he’s so rich no one can get to him, thus he escapes any criminal charges for Moricidin, etc. Beyond coincidence, Hayes also isn’t shy about forcing action into the novel. Practically ever person Yard meets starts a fight with him, the first instance being when Yard visits Joe’s lawyer, and the friggin lawyer and his buddies attempt to beat the shit out of Yard, for no reason at all!

Back in Kenya, Yard finally decides to take the law in his own hands. Moses finds out and tries to stop him – cue another fight scene, as the best friends trade punches. But Moses ends up going anyway, and after tracking clues in London (where Yard bangs a pretty secretary who works in Lavalle’s London office, though Hayes provides zero details), they split up, with Moses going to Montreal to locate Colley Fowler, Lavalle’s ex-bodyguard. Here develops another endless fistfight where Moses is called racist names by the locals and gets in a fight with them, then finds Colley in a boxing gym and gets in a fight with him.

It all finally leads up to a good action scene, where stocking-masked Yard and Moses pull a nighttime raid on Lavalle’s penthouse in Kingston, Jamaica – the two really cover the globe in this novel – with them blasting shotguns and wasting guards. Unfortunately Hayes, for all the detail he provides on Yard’s big-game guns, pulls an unexpected blunder with Yard outfitting his .357 Colt Python revolver with a silencer. And he does this throughout the novel. Hayes doesn’t exploit the sex aspect much, but he does dole out the gore when bullets start flying, though after messily blowing away the stooges in the penthouse the duo discover that Lavalle has absconded again…this time to Zaire!

Hayes takes us into the homestretch with Yard devising a plan to lure out the reclusive Lavalle – a nice bit of callback to the opening, where he had to lure out the wounded lion. Given the just-introduced information that Lavalle “collects” goldmines, Yard conveniently finds out about one in Zaire that the bastard’s been trying in vain to buy. Long story short, it leads to a good climax in which Lavalle and his entourage are stranded on a ferry as it goes down the river, and Yard and Moses take them down one by one.

I can’t say I loved Scavenger Kill, but eventually I’ll read another installment of the series…because why not?

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