Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man

The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man, by Bruno Rossi
November, 1974  Leisure Books

Johnny Sharpshooter Rock returns in a fairly good tenth installment that’s a hell of a lot better than the previous volume. First-time series author John Marshall delivers a Rock that comes off like a combo of Peter McCurtin's original version and the more neurotic character Len Levinson gave us; like McCurtin’s take this Johnny is crazy about guns, and like Len’s he’s crazy about killing mobsters.

As usual, continuity doesn’t exist; in the opening pages we learn that Rock has spent the past month out of the country, with “two of the last four weeks in Acapulco,” taking a vacation after fighting a branch of the Mafia in Puerto Rico. So then, could Hit Man be yet another Sharpshooter novel in which the author thinks he’s writing a volume of The Marksman? I wonder this because, you guessed it, Philip Magellan took on the Mafia in Puerto Rico in The Marksman #5: Headhunter, published a year before Hit Man.

Len informed me that when he was brought onto the series, McCurtin just sent him a few volumes of the three series which made up this bizarre triumvirate as background material, ie The Sharpshooter, The Marksman, and the source series, The Assassin. I’m assuming then that McCurtin did the same with Marshall, just giving him the latest books in the various series to help him with this book. Also, Headhunter was published around the time Marshall would’ve been writing Hit Man. (Len’s also told me that it took “about a year” for his manuscripts to be published.)

Anyway, all this could be nothing and maybe Marshall just pulled “Puerto Rico” out of the air as a place for Rock to have recently been, because otherwise Hit Man isn’t a sequel to that Marksman novel or any other novel, even in the Sharpshooter series. But Rock here does display some Magellan tendencies, from an “armory case” he has made at great expense (and detail) which carries his vast arsenal, to a penchant for donning disguises; the novel opens with Rock shaving off a moustache he apparently sported in Acapulco, to fool any possible mob sightings.

Checking up on the stock he still owns in the family company, Rock also checks the mail that’s accumulated for him in New York. Here he finds a letter from an old ‘Nam buddy, Mike Reid. We’re informed that Mike actually saved Rock’s life during the war, heading out into the night to find a lost and wounded Johnny, and now the man, who owns a cleaning company in Los Angeles and lives with his wife and daughter, has run into trouble with the Mafia. Having seen a photo spread on Rock in “a slick detective magazine,” Mike instantly realized that this character named “Johnny Rock” was none other than his old army pal, John Rocetti.

The letter is a month old, but Rock heads out to LA posthaste. Marshall delivers the goofy sleaze with Rock checking out a stewardess and her “pert ass,” and after he feels her up she goes back to his seat, tells him it’ll cost a hundred bucks, and then proceeds to give him a blowjob! Rock even goes home with her in Los Angeles, leaving a few hundred dollars on her nightstand before leaving.

When Rock meets up with Mike, his pal claims that the mob stuff blew over. Rock doesn’t believe it, but leaves anyway. Soon he learns that the LA area is made up of two families, the Franzias and the Scarpellinos, with a Don Lorenzo serving as godfather and keeping the two families from going to war. Rock finds all this out first-hand when, driving on a steep road, he gets in a wreck with a Cadillac, which happens to be driven by a good-looking Italian woman. Her brutish passenger, an obvious mobster, tries to pull a gun on Rock, who blithely blows him away.

The lady is named Maria Belamonte, and she thanks Rock profusely. She claims to be from Ohio, and came here because her kid sister got involved with the Scarpellino family, and ended up hooked on heroin and now dead. The guy Rock just wasted was a Scarpellino, and Rock did Maria a big favor. Later Rock even takes out the don of the Scarpellinos. After this Maria calls him over to her apartment to show him her appreciation – right in her swank bedroom with its ceiling mirrors and round bed. (Marshall by the way doesn’t get into details in the sex scenes.)

But when Rock and Maria are caught in a failed hit the following morning, Rock instantly suspects something once he’s taken out the hitmen; none of them took a shot at Maria. He’s also figured out that Mike’s wife Ginny and his ten year-old daughter have been taken captive by the Franzias. This latter part he learns, again first-hand, when he comes back to his hotel room to find a gun-toting Mike waiting for him. After disarming his old buddy, Rock gets the full sob story, that the Franzias are holding the two captive until Mike signs over his business to the mob. And Mike had a gun on his pal because he was afraid Rock would stir up trouble and get his family killed.

So as you can see, there’s a bit more plotting and scheming in this installment than most others. Rock himself is a bit more of a schemer and planner in Marshall’s hands, carefully plotting out his attacks and ensuring there are no complications. But he’s kind of stupid so far as protecting his comrades goes. Rock heads off to scope out the Franzia retreat where Mike’s wife and kid are being held, and just leaves Mike there alone. Guess what happens? The Scarpellinos send someone over, get Mike, torture him to find out when Rock plans to hit the Franzia place, and then kill him.

The rescue of Mike’s family is entertaining, with Rock in camo with his face painted like he’s back in ‘Nam, but Marshall doesn’t really play up the action scenes. Rock just sprays people with whatever gun he’s carrying and the people fall down. When he discovers some Scarpellino thugs showing up to ambush him – having learned of his hit from a tortured Mike – he easily deals with them. In fact, Rock is never once in trouble in the entire book, but this is typical of the series. Even a part where he gets vengeance on the Scarpellino who killed Mike, blowing him away point-blank with a hidden derringer, sees Rock making an easy escape.

The highlight of the book is Ginny Reid, who turns out to be even more bloodthirsty than Rock. She wants vengeance for her dead husband and, after sending her kid off on a plane, demands that Rock let her help kill some Scarpellinos. Her first victim is Maria, whose story has turned out to be a lie; she’s really a drug-addict hooker who works for the Scarpellinos. Ginny kidnaps her, ties her up, and in a darkly comic scene tortures her with a car battery, jamming the prod in horrific places. This is probably the only scene in the entire Sharpshooter series in which Johnny Rock tells someone they’re being too brutal! In fact he puts Maria out of her misery with a mercy shot.

Rock and Ginny make a good pair, along the lines of Rock and Iris, way back in the first volume. Marshall doesn’t deliver the expected sex scene between the two, but then, Ginny’s husband was just killed, and as Rock reminds himself, “No matter how horny you are, you just don’t screw your best friend’s wife.” She aids in the final assault in the novel, where Rock again carefully plans an ambush on a lodge in which Don Lorenzo is meeting with the Scarpellinos and Franzias. In fact Ginny does most of the work, firing a grenade launcher from a tree while Rock hides in some bushes and guns down anyone who comes out.

Marshall’s writing is pretty good, with the caveat that he really tells a lot more than he shows. And speaking of which, most of Hit Man is comprised of Rock telling people what he plans to do…and then later we see him doing it. There are several sequences where he’ll just sit around, sipping scotch, and say stuff like “After this, I shall then…” And yeah, Rock says “shall” a lot this time out; in fact, the characters here all speak much too formally, with contractions rarely if ever used.

Also, Hit Man is littered with typos, even more than the Leisure Books norm. I mentioned this to Len, and he sent me this response, which I enjoyed so much I thought I’d share it with the rest of you:

Copyediting at Leisure (BT) probably was done by several people including Peter, Milburn, Jane Thornton and freelancers, depending upon the book and year it was published. BT was a low end company. They paid less for everything, which means they didn't always hire the best people. Peter probably couldn't work at a company like Bantam, because he was too much of a rebel and free spirit, and probably didn't graduate from college. He also had a few teeth missing, which didn't fit the major publisher image. But he was a great man in his own way. I really miss him.


Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Ha! I love that observation about the "few teeth missing" as an editor. I have to say, I'd rather read stuff from an editor with a few teeth missing than from some pampered Harvard grad who publishes crap about "Rich people who get their feelings hurt." I'm stealing that quote from Barry Graham, it's not mine but I wish it was.

Joe Kenney said...

Kurt, thanks for the comment. Stephen Mertz was also interested in the McCurtin info, and asked that I post the below comment for him, as he couldn't get it to post on here:

I really appreciate Len Levinson sharing his reminisces about BT, especially about Peter McCurtin who is one of my favorite pulp writers. I’ve never read his action/adventure or Mafia series work but his westerns, his mysteries and his non-series Mafia books are first rate. A very solid writer, much better than the low end markets he wrote for. Len’s personal affection for the guy and his writing is apparent. Len, any chance of an in-depth profile of Peter? More information and a wider awareness of his work is long overdue.