Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Marksman #10: Open Contract

The Marksman #10: Open Contract, by Frank Scarpetta
March, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

The previous volume of The Marksman ended with Philip Magellan on the French Riviera, where he was planning to continue waging his war against the Mafia in France. So then it only makes sense that this volume opens with Magellan in Houston, Texas, with absolutely no mention of the events of the preceding two volumes!

Obviously, continuity was never a concern with the publishers and editor of The Marksman; something especially apparent when you consider that this volume was actually written by the editor, Peter McCurtin. As in #7: Slaughterhouse, Open Contract starts cold with Magellan on a new job in a new city, with no references to anything that came before, other than a cursory mention of his slain family, years ago.

McCurtin’s Magellan, who I guess you could argue is the “true” Magellan given that McCurtin created the guy, is nowhere as sadistic or psychopathic as co-writer Russell Smith's. He doesn’t drug people, he doesn’t torture people, and in fact he lets several Mafioso live this time around, even offering safety for a few of them! While this serves for a more-heroic protagonist, personally I prefer the wacked-out version of the character delivered by Smith.

But anyway, Magellan’s in Houston, and anyone hoping for any local color will be disappointed. I’ve never even been to Houston, but I think I could bring the city more to life than McCurtin, who does nothing to even make it appear that Magellan’s in Texas; it’s just some random city populated by Mafioso, and it has a harbor area. I mean, I’ve lived in Dallas since 1996, and I think I’ve only seen four or five Italians here in that entire time, but whatever, Houston circa 1975 was crawling with mobsters who’d just arrived from Sicily.

Believe it or not, the plot of Open Contract is incredibly simple. Magellan in his typical omniscience knows that Don Tomasso DiGrasso runs the Houston Mafia, and Magellan’s plan is to sow dissent in the ranks. To accomplish this he first easily blows away a pair of hoods in a restaurant owned by one of DiGrasso’s top men, Duke Pavione. Now, Pavione spots Magellan in the opening pages, calling the don, who calls in the hoods, but later the don states that no one knows what Magellan looks like. So how then did Duke spot him??

McCurtin of course doesn’t care about such details. And also, despite the hyperbolic back cover copy that Magellan is “armed with the most sophisticated weapons in the world,” McCurtin’s take of the character actually uses less-“sophisticated” weapons than Smith’s version, in particular a .38 pistol for his left hand and a .44 Magnum for his right. He also occasionally breaks out a Luger, which McCurtin has as being this incredible “machine pistol” capable of mowing down armies of men.

Magellan (and I just realized “Philip Magellan” sounds very similar to “Peter McCurtin,” doesn’t it?) takes captive Duke and his restaurant waiter, Rocco, and forces them to show him where the don’s latest shipment of heroin is located. This leads to another brief skirmish on the docks of Houston, and while Duke and Rocco sit handcuffed in the trunk of his car (for which Magellan apologizes!!), Magellan blows away a few goons and then burns all of the heroin.

These opening fights are sort of bareboned, so far as the violence goes, and it’s interesting that as the novel proceeds it gets more gory, with McCurtin eventually describing the impact of each of Magellan’s bullets. But anyway, through some “crafty” maneuvers Magellan plants seeds that Duke has joined up with him, telling Magellan where the heroin was located, and we get many long scenes in which Don DiGrasso sits around in his “fortress-mansion” and ponders over his traitorous ranks.

Strangely, for the guy who created and edited the series, McCurtin turns in the worst (or perhaps the least memorable) volumes of The Marksman. This one is no different, with a sluggish yet still harried feel to the whole thing, with no spark to any of it. There aren’t even any of the bizarre, non sequitur touches like you’d get in one of Russell Smith’s installments. Magellan’s basically a cipher, an omniscient and omnipotent “crimefighter” whose only concern is quashing the Houston Mafia.

And unfortunately, the few interesting touches are quickly dropped. For example there’s a Godfather bit where Don Digrasso calls in his “executioner,” Luca Boito, who you’d no doubt guess is clearly “inspired” by Luca Brasi. The don orders Boito to take out first Duke Pavione and then Magellan. A sadist who enjoys his work, Boito offers a lot of promise, but he’s quickly dispensed of, and not even by Magellan, as McCurtin instead works in more of a betrayal plot with the don’s bodyguard, Salvatore Belguardo, deciding to help Duke.

Meanwhile Magellan sits around in his hotel and cleans his guns, even employing an unwilling Duke on an assault on the don’s heroin manufacturing plant, which is located in some nondescript rural area outside of Houston. Here Magellan restages World War II, breaking out a mortar and blowing away the goons from afar. Also Ken Barr’s typically-great cover comes into play, sort of, with Magellan hoisting a submachine gun and hopping through shattered walls to blow away survivors.

All of the plotting/betrayal stuff is also quickly dispensed of, with McCurtin anticlimactically killing off various characters in the final pages,during Magellan and Duke’s assault on the don’s mansion. This sequence continues with the increasing gore factor, with copious detail of heads exploding and whatnot. One thing missing, you’ll notice, is the sex quotient; there isn’t a single female character in Open Contract.

There’s also no lead-in to the next volume, as all-mighty Magellan easily dispenses of the Houston Mafia. After the novel’s endless climax of him and the don going mano a mano with revolvers, Magellan shoots Digrasso, then uses his “carnival” training to leap several feet to the ground beneath the don’s bedroom window. Magellan then blithely strolls for his rental car, his mission here complete. The end!

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