Thursday, November 6, 2014

John Eagle Expeditor #11: Poppies Of Death

John Eagle Expeditor #11: Poppies Of Death, by Paul Edwards
June, 1975  Pyramid Books

This eleventh volume of the John Eagle Expeditor series sees a definite change in the formula that was established in the previous ten installments. Tasked by Mr. Merlin with a mission that “comes closer to pure espionage than anything we have ever sent you on,” John Eagle spends the majority of Poppies Of Death undercover, in what amounts to a basic sort of Cold War-era spy novel.

Paul Eiden turned in this installment, which to tell the truth is just as leisurely paced as his first entry, #7: The Ice Goddess. Unlike that volume, Poppies Of Death doesn’t have an outlandish plot, and in fact comes off like a prefigure of Craig Thomas’s 1977 novel Firefox (which is probably more known as the Clint Eastwood film), with Eagle sneaking into Moscow to steal a plane and fly it back into the free world. But there is no action for the first hundred pages, only livened up here and there with the explicit sex scenes Eiden also brought to his previous contributions.

Despite the lack of a pulpy plot and the minimal thrills for the first third of the volume, Poppies Of Death is nowhere as underwhelming as The Ice Goddess, which wasted the reader’s time with endlessly-detailed games of chess and topical details about an Eskimo’s daily life. I have no idea what Eiden did for a day job, but I’ll guess that, like other series author Robert Lory, he did a fair bit of international traveling, as this novel is filled to the brim with details about life in the USSR, with Moscow itself brought more to life than you’d expect in a men’s adventure novel.

In a way, this “Eagle goes undercover” angle had already been done in the series, back in the almighty #5: Valley Of Vultures. Either Eiden, like Manning Lee Stokes, decided a change-up was due to the series formula, or maybe editor Lyle Kenyon Engel wanted the Expeditor books to go in more of a spy novel direction. At any rate, here you will not find the things so familiar from previous volumes: no opening portion from Mr. Merlin’s perspective, no fancy gadgets, no remote fortress that John Eagle must cross hostile terrain to destroy.

This volume also appears to confirm a theory I’ve had that Eiden was the Expeditor author who apparently complained that Lory’s version of the character was too sexually active for someone who had a steady girlfriend.  Eiden is the only series author to give Eagle’s girlfriend, Ruth Lone Wolf (sometimes referred to as Ruth Lame Wolf, as she is here), any narrative time. Ruth factors heavily in the opening of Poppies Of Death, waking Eagle up at midnight to wish him happy birthday (his actual age is not stated, but we learn that the day itself is sometime in September) and gifting him with a Pulsar Date II watch, which she describes as “super-cool.”

Eagle is soon summoned to New York, where his clothing sizes are measured by Brubaker, a tight-lipped intelligence world figure. From there Eagle goes through eight weeks of flight training, so he can receive FAA certification as a four-engine jet pilot. Luckily, this material is wisely summarized in the narrative; you don’t have to read endless pages about Eagle learning how to fly large airliners. Finally he receives his mission; the Russians have copied the 707 in the form of a Soviet airliner called the TU-350. Eagle is to go to Moscow, hook up with his contacts there, and steal the plane.

How exactly this mission is suitable for Mr. Merlin’s one and only Expeditor is not mentioned. As for Mr. Merlin himself, his appearance here is reduced to a handful of lines, and indeed he comes off as a bit more callous than normal, almost taunting Eagle that he might very well not return from this particular mission. To make matters worse, Eagle himself spends the novel wondering why he was given this mission, as he is not trained in espionage, and thus he’s out of his element for the majority of the book.

One thing that stays true though is the native booty John Eagle must have. This would be Ludmilla, a gorgeous and stacked brunette Russian whose husband, an author, was killed by the KGB a year before, hence her sudden desire to defect. She turns out to be Eagle’s contact, and despite her frosty nature Eagle can’t help but check out her awesome bod: “Her breasts were so full and widely separated that their outer curves hid part of her upper arms.” Eiden actually writes this same description twice in the novel, so the lady must have some serious melons.

Ludmilla will be the navigator on the stolen plane; a Soviet Air Force instructor, she currently works as an oceanographer and has the luxury of her own car and apartment. Her accomplice, another Red Army Air Force pilot, is Aleksander Dobrodni, who will fly the stolen TU-350, with Eagle serving as co-pilot. All this stuff takes many pages to play out, with Eiden spending a lot of time with Eagle walking around Moscow and learning how its citizens try to work around the shackles of their oppressive society. There are no action scenes, no moments of suspense of tension.

There is, though, the already-mentioned sex scene. Eiden again proves himself the most explicit of the series authors, with Ludmilla, the night before they undertake the mission, inviting Eagle up to her apartment. In fact Eiden sort of rewrites one of the sex scenes from his previous installment, #9: The Deadly Cyborgs, with Eagle doing this weird “rotating” of his legs and hips so he can roll Ludmilla up onto his lap while he’s “ramming” her. Meanwhile Eagle discovers the poor girl’s ass is lacerated, something she’d been trying to hide from him. Turns out Dobrodni did it, the man being a “sadist” who gets off on whipping girls.

Instead of being outraged, Eagle instead mocks Ludmilla as a “masochist” and pretty much says she deserved it! Only after pleading with Eagle that she “had” to sleep with Dobrodni, so as to seduce him, does Eagle relent that the girl most likely didn’t want to get savagely whipped, after all. But then, Eagle himself is pretty callous, this time around; his first line in the novel, in fact, is a pissy keeper: “I loathe people who go through life saying, ‘I’m sorry!’”

Posing as an engineer named Higbee, Eagle spends the majority of the novel walking around Moscow in Higbee’s tweed suits and wondering why he’s on this assignment. It’s never a good idea to have your character constantly question why he was given a particular mission, for soon the reader begins to wonder the same thing. Countless times Eagle says he’s not cut out for espionage, though he’s obviously seen his share of Bond movies, as he introduces himself to Ludmilla thusly: “Eagle. John Eagle.”

Humorously, after a hundred pages of buildup, the actual theft of the TU-350 goes down in just a handful of pages, with hardly any tension, other than when police chase after the fleeing airliner and shoot at it. Eagle, Dobrodni, and Ludmilla take the plane to Turkey. Here we get lots of technical detail on how one can use celestial navigation to pilot a plane in the absence of Doppler radar, something Eiden informs us commercial Russian planes didn’t have at this time.

An intriguing thing about reading these old action paperbacks is how they can sometimes prefigure things that happened in the real world. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the various MH370 disappearance theories that have been floating around for the past several months. Those theorists who claim MH370 was stolen would have a field day with Poppies Of Death, which basically tells you how to steal an airliner, even how to construct an impromptu landing strip.

Anyway, Poppies Of Death is also similar to Valley Of Vultures in how the last quarter seems to be from an entirely different novel. Landing in Turkey, Eagle finds a truck filled with college-aged Turks, lead by an attractive girl named Shali. Ludmilla and Dobrodni are quickly shuffled out of the narrative, Ludmilla being sent on to her new oceanographer job in Boston and Dobrodni waiting at the impromptu airstrip for a fellow pilot to be smuggled in.

Mr. Merlin, who leaves Eagle an audio tape with instructions, informs Eagle that he is now to report to Shali and do whatever she says. This is after Eagle has coldly spurned the girl’s sexual advances. Shali turns out to be the daughter of Bektek, corrupt Minister of the Interior who is legally harvesting opium and selling it to the Mafia. Shali and her fellow radicals intend to destroy the opium plant, and Eagle is going to lead the mission. (At least this explains the book’s title.)

Eiden delivers another sex scene; it’s not only a short one, but it’s a strange one, as Eagle basically rapes Shali, “ramming” into her for all of a few seconds, so they can “get sex out of the way.” We’ll all recall the “man’s conquest” theme of the John Eagle Expeditor series, and that theme is very strong here, as Eagle resents how Shali enjoys taunting men with her sexuality, so he basically just screws her quickly. As for Shali, she seems to enjoy it, despite the brevity: “I’ve never been taken that way before.” Thus, per the series theme, the female has been conquered.

This takes us into the homestretch as Eagle leads the young radicals on the assault, but they’re all captured as they’re hauling away the opium in several trucks – the mission, finally explained to Eagle, is for him to put the opium back on the TU-350 so that Dobrodni and his fellow Russian co-pilot can fly it back into the USSR. At least, I think that’s the plan.

Finally employing his plastic suit and dart gun (which Eiden refers to as a “flechette pistol”), Eagle gets the upper hand by killing a few of Bedek’s cops – Eagle’s first kills in the novel, over 130 pages in. Like Stokes, Eiden has Eagle’s suit outfitted with a helmet, yet strangely it’s a helmet that can supposedly fit within the pockets of Eagle’s suit! Robert Lory had the smarter idea, making it a hood instead of a helmet. But this action material is quickly over, and unlike his previous volume Eiden doesn’t play up on the violence factor.

The final pages feature a last-second plot where Eagle takes on some New York Mafioso who are here in Turkey and are pissed that their opium has suddenly gone missing. Eagle, once again captured, tries to fool them into thinking he’s from the Montreal branch of the Mafia(?!), then provokes them to shoot each other. Then he gets in an anticlimactic fight with their resident karate master. Eagle of course makes short work of him in one of the more hasty fight scenes ever written.

Eagle then flies to Hawaii for a debriefing by Mr. Merlin, to finally get some answers on this particular assignment. Speaking through the usual audio hookup (Eagle has still never actually seen his boss), Mr. Merlin explains that this whole mission was basically a stab at fighting the drug problem – the opium has been destroyed, and the goal was to destroy it in a Russian plane on Turkish soil. Or something. Eagle tells Mr. Merlin to do something about the “goof ball” menace (by which he means amphetamines) and leaves. The end!

As for the writing itself, one thing I’ve failed to state is that I really enjoy Eiden’s style. He has a very readable prose, and despite the lack of action or suspense the novel was still somewhat entertaining. Eiden though does come off very much as a contract writer; unlike Lory there are no attempts at continuity. Even Eagle’s thumb injury, from Eiden’s own The Deadly Cyborgs, goes unmentioned, whereas the digit was nearly torn off of Eagle’s hand at the climax of that installment.

Long story short, Poppies Of Death is a misfire. Not the worst of the series (I think my least favorite volume, so far, was #6: The Glyphs Of Gold), but sort of a muddled misstep which has nothing to do with the well-established series formula. Here’s hoping Eiden’s next installment, which would be his last, gets things back on track.

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