Monday, November 17, 2014

The Destroyer #5: Dr. Quake

The Destroyer #5: Dr. Quake, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
September, 1972  Pinnacle Books

As I’ve mentioned many times, I have a sick fondness for female villains, the more evil and depraved the better. A frequent commenter named Grant shares my fondness for these pulpy characters, and has often stated that this fifth volume of The Destroyer features some of the best female villains ever. So, when I came across a copy of the book in a used bookstore during a recent trip to Austin, Texas, I snatched it right up.

And while this is easily my favorite volume of the series I’ve yet read, Dr. Quake pretty much encapsulates why I so much prefer other men’s adventure series to The Destroyer. For once again authors Sapir and Murphy have taken a pulpy concept and have proven their reluctance to actually write a pulpy novel – rather, Dr. Quake is the expected satirical, spoofy sort of romp the series is known for.

To be sure, I enjoy this series, but then, I look at that cover, read the back cover description about a mad scientist named Floren blackmailing California with his earthquake device, and wonder what a true pulpster like Manning Lee Stokes might’ve done with it. Instead, Murphy and Sapir put more focus on the bumbling minor characters of the tale, with protagonists Remo Williams and Chiun reduced to almost walk-on roles, and the pulpy stuff is for the most part absent. There isn’t even much sex or violence.

Like #10: Terror Squad, this volume walks an uneasy line between light-hearted spoofery and unexpected savagery, though not to the extent of that later volume. Instead, it’s more satirical for the most part, presaging the direction the series would eventually take. What it’s missing is the customary Remo/Chiun banter; there’s some of it here, but not as much as one would expect. Instead, too much narrative time is given over to loutish, oafish Sheriff Wade Wyatt, who we soon learn is somehow involved with the earthquakes that have been hitting the small Californian town of San Aquino.

A handful of rich men in the city are being blackmailed by some unknown person or persons to hand over a monthly payment of $1,000, or the earthquakes will get bigger and bigger. When one of the men goes to D.C. to talk to someone in the government, he soon ends up dead, and gorily so, his corpse found in a San Aquino hotel with his intestines spilling out of his mouth, as if he’s been crushed. But gradually his D.C. contact gets the attention of CURE, the ultra-secret organization for which Remo Williams serves.

Remo isn’t nearly as satiric or cynical in this early volume, and seems to take his job somewhat seriously. But then, it’s not like he rushes into the fray like any other self-respecting men’s adventure protagonist would. Instead Remo comes into San Aquino posing as the possibly-gay new owner of the company which was previously owned by the murdered man. His goal is to get blackmailed like the other wealthy men are, so he can suss out who is behind the earthquakes.

But still, the authors focus more on Sheriff Wyatt, who comes off like your cliched small town sheriff, with all the expected posturing and ranting, and quickly grates on your nerves. Remo doesn’t get much narrative space, and Chiun hardly any at all. We also get lots of stuff about a group of local Mafioso who are looking to break in on this blackmailing scheme. Only when they try to move in on Remo does the novel really deliver any action, with Remo of course making incredibly short work of them.

Pinnacle hyped Remo as “the super man of the ‘70s” in their advertisements for The Destroyer, and the truth of that slogan only hit me with this installment. It’s exactly correct; Remo is basically the men’s adventure version of Superman, so fast, strong, and deadly that no mere mortal stands a chance against him. And while this is a cool concept, it does tend to rob the series of much tension in the few action scenes, as you know Remo can kill hordes of men without breaking a sweat.

Another thing that bugs me is how the action scenes are actually written. They’re generally never from Remo’s perspective, instead from the perspectives of the various mobsters as they’re suddenly hit without even seeing Remo or Chiun move. This is sort of how Ric Meyers would write the later Ninja Master books, only there the action scenes were better and bloodier. (Speaking of which, Meyers co-wrote four volumes of The Destroyer, and I definitely intend to check them out someday.)

The back cover states that a Dr. Floren is behind the blackmailing, but humorously enough this isn’t revealed until the final pages. Instead we learn that Floren is the chief earthquake researcher at the nearby Richter Institute, and it’s Floren’s twin daughters who are the pulpy evil villains that Grant was talking about. Unfortunately, they don’t show up until much too late in the novel – their presence could have greatly benefitted the opening half of the book.

If you check the cover (which I believe was by Hector Garrido, who also did the Baroness covers), you’ll see one of the twins kneeling worshipfully before Chiun. This, like the other events depicted on the cover, actually happens in the novel, and the twins are also dressed the same, with skin-tight T-shirts with red fists on them; however the twins, Jacki and Jill Floren, are brunettes rather than blondes. They’re also stacked vixens of the Russ Meyer variety, with breastesses so large as to be unnatural; when Remo first sees them, he has to sit down to hide his immediate erection.

The Floren twins appear to be hippie terrorists of a kind, denouncing “the Man” and wearing those fist T-shirts emblazoned with “NOW,” which is the name of their cause. But as mentioned, they just come into the narrative too late, with too much time given over to the bumbling exploits of Sheriff Wyatt, whom the girls constantly call “Pig.” But whereas the reader quickly figures out that the girls are the culprits, Remo is a little slow-witted about it, and doesn’t realize it until the very end, after he’s been double-teamed by them.

And as for the sex, it’s just as minimally-described as the violence:

Jacki stood up, followed Jill and Remo into the bedroom. They were already tangled together on the bed and she stood alongside them, trailing fingertips along their bodies, then she moved to join them. Jill was throbbing again and Remo felt himself being rolled over by Jacki.

They were insatiable. It was like making love to an octopus which had come to drain his vitals, to dry him up, to turn him into an aged man in one lasting moment of lust.

And that’s it, other than for some earlier stuff where the three frolic in the pool, but this too is written in much the same style, without ever getting into the nitty gritty. The actual “dirty stuff” occurs after the authors fade to black, and we only learn later that Remo was so damn skilled that he’s left the twins in a near-coma of satiation. But seriously, if you’re going to have your protagonist screw a pair of hot, sadistic, overly-busty twins, then is it too much to ask that you provide all the juicy details??

Jacki and Jill have devised a “water-laser” device with their father, Dr. Floren. Remo watches how this device causes the utter destruction of anything it’s unleashed upon. The girls and their dad claim that the device does not give off any vibrations, which elicits much argument between Chiun and Remo, with Chiun insisting that everything gives off vibrations. Chiun might not get much narrative space this volume, but he does get to save the day, taking on a colossal water laser that Dr. Floren has built in his effort to completely destroy California.

So yes, it turns out that the titular Dr. Quake (Floren’s apparent nickname) is in fact the true mastermind behind the blackmailing, though this is only revealed at the very end of the tale, despite being boldly pronounced on the back cover. Remo actually spends more time taking on the Mafia, in particular getting vengeance on a hitman who enjoys killing people with an icepick. This is the most memorable scene in the book, and the only time I’ve ever read where a character is killed by a carwash, with Remo strapping the poor bastard down onto the top of a car and sending it through the machine.

But Dr. Quake and his twins are overshadowed by the mobsters, such that their own fates come off as anticlimactic. For Jacki and Jill, who have been committing all of the behind-the-scenes gory murders in San Aquino, all Remo does is knock them into a crevice in the ground which he then shuts with the water-laser, burying them alive. As for Dr. Quake, Chiun saves the day as mentioned, with Remo knocked on his ass by the colossal laser and at death’s door, only saved by Chiun, who re-instructs Remo on various breathing techniques.

I sound like I’m being unduly harsh on Dr. Quake, but in truth I did enjoy it – when I read one of these Destroyer novels, I wish I had the entire series to read, because it really is like a soap opera for guys that you can get caught up in, with Remo and Chiun’s banter and the shared world of odd characters in which they live. But I’m judging the book as a men’s adventure novel, for which I think it’s an utter failure – the action is minimal, the focus is on comedy and spoofery, and the sex is anemic.

However, judged as a goofy sort of men’s adventure spoof, Dr. Quake is a roaring success. Personally, I prefer my pulp with a little more of a serious tone – I mean, I definitely want it to be off the wall and crazy, but so far as the characters go it should be the most serious thing in the world. With the Destroyer books, you more so get the feeling that the characters are as detached from the plot as the authors are.


Grant said...

(These remarks are full of SPOILERS, of course.)

I'm glad to see your opinions of it. Your phrase "light-hearted spoofery and unexpected savagery" - especially if it refers to Remo himself more than anyone else - really underlines my attachment to these kinds of stories. As much as I often like "squeaky-clean" good guy characters, I can go to the other extreme and be fascinated by ones who are often more ruthless than the people they're up against.

You mention the twins being blonde on the cover but not in the book. Even though it's clever the way the story makes them black-haired with extremely light skin - going AGAINST the whole "California" image that this story plays around with when it comes to them and other things - I can't help imagining them blonde and tanned, so it's a toss-up as far as which to imagine. And, presumably without it getting graphic (since it's a book cover), I keep wishing that that cover showed one of them leaning provocatively beside Remo himself instead of Chiun. Speaking of graphic, I can't help disagreeing about the Remo / Jacki / Jill romantic scenes not being extreme enough, since I think they're almost EXACTLY extreme enough, like the moment of Remo (after he drives them crazy in the pool and before he drives them crazy in bed!) maneuvering one of them to the pool ladder with his hand, and one of them with his.... Maybe it isn't an "out-there" moment, but it still works.

Either way, there's one clever thing about the end of that scene. Destroyer fans sometimes complain that it takes too long for Remo to suspect the right person, but the end of that scene really makes the most of the idea - the twins plan to exhaust him physically then kill him, but he exhausts THEM and then goes on his way, without even suspecting them yet.

And the big showdown scene, without being graphic, in some ways still shows him at his most ruthless. Like the particular WAY he gets hold of Jacki and Jill and tosses them into that trench that was part of their plan, and the way he turns the device from its target and - maybe not casually but ALMOST casually - turns it toward the trench itself, followed by that line "The girls screamed."
(It isn't everyday you actually hear a "pitiful" scream from a villainess character when she "gets it.")
Followed by Remo regretting it slightly, but in an incredibly rough sort of way - "they had great tits."

FreeLiverFree said...

You mention that while Remo's "Supeman" nature was a cool concept, it takes away from the tension of the stories. I always felt the same. I read the Destroyer for the comedy not the action.

You've mentioned on several blogs how you like female villains I wonder if you would like the anime/manga Black Lagoon

It has a lot of violent danger criminals in it. I'm not sure it would be sleazy enough for your taste, though.

Grant said...

There's one recurring idea in the Destroyer books that wears thin for me, and that's the idea of Remo's training making him an incredible sexual athlete, but also turning sex into such a mechanical thing for him that there's no enjoyment in it (imagine an adventure series like the Bond movies - especially the Connery Bond movies - telling you that repeatedly!). And this book definitely bends those rules, luckily. There are the two moments you mention where Remo has to sit down when the twins are nearby. And in the pool / bed scene, you really get the feeling that he's making the most of that prowess of his.

Grant said...

It's a little surprising to see a connection between a DESTROYER book and a sword and sorcery story (I guess), but SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN # 88 has a story that almost had to be inspired by this one (minus the science fiction) - Conan enjoys hot twins, they try to get him killed, he literally drags them away and gets THEM killed (a little less directly than Remo with the Forben twins, but it's the same general idea).

Felicity Walker said...

When I read Remo Williams/Destroyer #63, The Sky Is Falling, my only other exposure to the character was the 1985 movie, so I was totally unprepared for the dark, violent comedy of the novel. Chiun straight-up kills a handful of drunken partiers who are too loud in the hallway outside his hotel room, dropping them down an elevator shaft. Remo bullies even his allies, dragging one British officer around behind his car and knocking the pipe out of another’s mouth so hard that he loses his teeth--just because they didn’t cooperate right away. I know that the fate of the world is at stake, but hey, it’s the author’s world, and he could have made it more pleasant to visit. There’s also some gay-bashing in there.

As for hot villainesses, we’re told that the villainess is super-beautiful and sexy, but she’s also a psychopath that loves to torture people and animals--way too scary to be enjoyably campy.

I went into the book expecting something along the lines of a Mack Bolan/Executioner novel but with some comedy, and instead I was shocked and depressed. I wouldn’t pick up another Destroyer novel, based on the experience.

I don’t like that Chiun is a terrifying monster, but having said that, it was pretty cool how even Kim Il-Sung is afraid to cross him and has told the North Korean military never to disturb the village of Sinanju.

Morganti said...

Grant, you're a genius. You should be writing these reviews.

Morganti said...

The world is dangerous, Remo doubly so.

Doktor_Kuhn said...

I read several in the Destroyer series. My all-time favorite was Mugger Blood. It featured the agitator reverend who manages to get his schmendrick stuck in a Russian torture device. A busload of guilty White liberals gets invited to the Bronx where they are promptly mugged, raped and killed. Remo Williams are looking for an old East German spy who has a lie detector. It is the most racist book in the series, and for that reason -- the funniest.