Thursday, October 30, 2014
The Smuggler #5: The Crystal Fortress
The Smuggler #5: The Crystal Fortress, by Paul Petersen
January, 1975 Pocket Books
Perhaps proving out my theory that the Smuggler series actually had two authors, with Paul Petersen and David Oliphant trading installments, this fifth volume sort of returns to the sleazy feel of the second and third volumes, whereas the first and fourth volumes were anemic in that regard. But it’s nothing to get excited about, as this series is still pretty lackluster – about the best thing is the cover artwork, which by the way continues on the back for each volume, so you really get two covers per volume.
One thing that remains true is that each volume has an unsteady opening. First we’re watching as Dr. Rudolph Balencroft oversees the launch of a new orbiting satellite that’s like a precursor to Star Wars technology (the Reagan kind, not the movie), chucking evilly to himself that the government who forced him to do these jobs will soon pay. Then we’re on an old steamship named Le Havre that’s been turned into a pleasure cruiser, where Eric “Smuggler” Saveman is enjoying vacation.
Saveman, that ultra-perfect bastion of maleness, quickly disposes of his latest conquest, some bimbo he found in second class, and returns to appreciating himself in the mirror of his first class suite. But then he’s really pissed to receive a coded message from his boss, General Velasco, requesting that Savemen spy on a KGB operative named Tyziac who also happens to be on the ship(??); instead, Saveman hooks up with a pair of hot sisters, Lori and Lyla Claiborne, super-rich scions of an engineering dynasty, headed by their grandfather, Wiley, who also happens to be on the ship.
The sleaze returns, but it’s not as page-consuming as it was back in Fools Of The Trade; when Saveman has the expected sex scene with the sisters (who inform him that they grew fond of having sex with each other back in boarding school), it’s pretty explicit, but it only lasts a few paragraphs. Then Saveman discovers the murdered corpse of Tyziac, which leads to an action scene in which Saveman receives help from a fellow agent, one who is posing as a shiphand. This boring action scene has the unique outcome that Saveman almost gets killed.
The Smugger series has never been shy about info-dumping – these authors clearly want to make their novels appear “realistic” – and we get lots of detail when, two weeks later, Saveman recovers enough to go to ZED headquarters in Connecticut and get briefed by his boss, General Victor Velasco. Long story short, Dr. Balencroft has absconded with the secret code that will activate six nuclear-armed satellites. However, that French dude, DeFleur, is also hunting him down, or something.
More interesting are the topical ‘70s touches. Saveman now lives in this sprawling bachelor pad in Connecticut, which he’s named Cascade. He goes there with Lori and Lyla, who have stayed on as his “nurses,” and they gawk at the opulent place, where everything is controlled by the telephone, sort of like the trailer in Operation Hang Ten. Saveman merely has to “dial up” whatever he needs, and it will happen, like for example gracing every room in the house with “the soft sounds of Quincy Jones.”
Remember how Saveman’s dad Doc got married in the previous volume and is now married to a blind lady Saveman refers to as “mom?” Well in case you’d forgotten, the authors remind us about it a bunch. This does lead eventually to a brief action scene at Cascade, as LeFleur’s goons attack the place. There’s a bit of gore as Saveman and his dad blow away a few of the guys, who try to escape on motorcycles. But it’s over too quick, and it’s back to the plot-building, dialog, and overly-described technological stuff, like we’re suddenly reading Robert Ludlum or something.
Even the sleaze element goes away – when Saveman screws one of the sisters in his Lambourghini while the other drives it, the authors telescope it. More sign of this is when Saveman boards a ZED-owned 707 and finds that the pilot is Myrna, that hotbod nympho who so eagerly (and graphically) screwed him back in Fools Of The Trade. The same thing happens here, but the authors do not describe it at all, just intimate that it’s about to happen…and then later inform us that Myrna’s flying her plane nude.
The action moves down to Montevideo, where Saveman parachutes out of Myrna’s 707. Here he stages a rescue of Wiley Claiborne, that 70 year-old millionaire whom we have just learned is one of “the 18,” ie the free agents of ZED. But Wiley’s been caught by one of the Russians who is also chasing Balencroft, and here we get another brief action scene, which culminates in Saveman and Wiley back on Myrna’s 707 and expressly ignoring Velasco’s orders to return to base. Instead, they head way south, where Balencroft has fortified himself in the antarctic.
The title of this volume has you expecting a bit of John Eagle Expeditor-style pulp, but sadly that is not the case. Even here the authors try to retain a feeling for “realism,”putting more focus on how our heroic trio have a hell of a time surviving the subzero elements, and less on the fun sort of escapism you want from these types of books. Even the titular “Crystal Fortress” turns out to just be a series of shack-like buildings Balencroft operates from, and unfortunately we don’t even get to see them, as instead Saveman gets in protracted battles from his downed 707, going up against hired thugs in Sno Cats and ski mobiles.
The ending is even anticlimactic, with everything centering around a toppling iceberg that Balencroft has fashioned his “fortress” upon. Meanwhile Wiley’s gotten his arm blown off, which sucks, because now he has to retire. The action here is at times nicely gory, as well as brutal, like when Saveman finally tracks down an injured DeFleur and slices open his thighs, there on the icy ground, and tells him, “Watch yourself die, mother fucker.” But these scenes are few and far between, and ultimately are lost amid the 220+ pages of tiny type.
Previous volumes have jumped around the place, style-wise, like in #3: Murder In Blue, which went from Blaxploitation-esque inner city crime to a supernatural finale straight out of The Mind Masters. The Crystal Fortress however stays true to its vibe throughout, but sadly it’s a bland and tepid vibe, with a too-perfect hero who does little to engender ready empathy.