Thursday, April 2, 2015

SOBs #1: The Barrabas Run


SOBs #1: The Barrabas Run, by Jack Hild
September, 1983  Gold Eagle Books

The SOBs series gets off to a rocky start with a first volume that comes off more like a standalone novel than the beginning of an ongoing series. The copyright page credits a whopping three authors: Jack Canon, Robin Hardy, and Alan Bomack.

Hardy became one of the main writers of the series, and “Bomack” was the pseudonym of an author who mostly worked on Gold Eagle’s Executioner and SuperBolan novels (humorously, his name was an anagram of “Mack Bolan;” according to William H. Young in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction, the author’s real name was David Wade). Canon though spent the late ‘70s on through to the early ‘90s writing the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, and my theory is that he did most of the writing of The Barrabas Run; the book reads almost identically to Canon’s “realistic” vibe as shown in such Killmaster novels as Blood Raid.

Like that novel, The Barrabas Run is a rather dour, unenjoyable affair, too focused on scene setting and character building. It lacks the action one would want from a men’s adventure novel, and, like Mark Roberts's Hanoi Hellground, is more along the lines of a Dirty Dozen ripoff, spending much too much time putting together the daredevil group who must see through this particular mission – namely, rescuing a Nelson Mandela-type African politician from a group of left-wing terrorists.

But instead of getting to the action straightaway, we must instead endure, for over a third of the 195-page narrative, the looong tale of how the Soldiers of Barrabas come to be, and then how they train for the mission. I mean, shit – Z-Comm would’ve saved the guy by page five!! It boggles my mind that some of these men’s adventure authors thought their readers would want to read “realistic” takes on how a mercenary army is put together, and how it trains for an impossible mission. And who knows, maybe some readers did. But what I want from this genre is violent escapism.

Rather, we get lots of character background concerning one Nile Barrabas, in his early 40s when the novel opens and a blood-soaked veteran of ‘Nam; indeed, on the veritable last chopper out as Saigon fell. These days Barrabas makes his living as a merc, but he’s currently in a rat-infested prison in some South American hellhole, having fought for the wrong side. Then a CIA “spook” named Walker Jessup shows up; the two met in ‘Nam, as we have seen in the prologue. Now Jessup reports to some mysterious senator, who has funded an off-the-books mercenary strike squad to take on terrorism around the world.

Jessup springs Barrabas from his cell (not via fireworks – yet another indication of Canon’s authorship – but through political maneuvering), and now our white-haired hero is free to go about the world to recruit his army. An interesting note: Barrabas’s team (and likely Canon’s manuscript) is frequently referred to as “Eagle Squad;” this is even how they eventually refer to themselves. My guess is this was Canon’s title for his original manuscript, which perhaps Gold Eagle then farmed out into a series, under the much better title SOBs.

The series was known for killing off team members, but don’t worry about that happening here. Canon spends so much time putting together his massive team that you can tell he has no plans to kill off any of them. But damn they could’ve been whittled down: we’ve got Liam O’Toole on explosives, Emilio Lopez as a general commando, Wiley Drew Boone as a sailor, Vince Biondi as a professional race car driver/top gun pilot, and in various general capacities we have Nate Beck, Claude Hayes, Al Chen, Alex Nanos, Lee Hatton, and Billy Starfoot.

Probably the last three will be most familiar to casual readers of the series, as they appeared throughout. But those fans of Billy Starfoot, in particular due to the psychedelic turn his character took in #6: Red Hammer Down, will be in for disappointment with this first volume, as Billy is a cipher of the character he would gradually become. Of them all Canon spends the most print on Lee Hatton; Dr. Lee Hatton that is, the Smurfette of the SOBs. Barrabas hand-picks his vast team (at exorbitant page count), with the exception of Lee Hatton, who is thrust on him as a surprise by Walker Jessup.

In a way, though, Lee’s presence makes sense; I’ve often wondered why none of these men’s adventure strike squads ever bother to include a medic on the team. But Lee Hatton’s prime job will be nursing the elderly Joseph Noboctu (ie the Mandela type) through the jungle terrain of Kaluba (ie the fictional African country in which all this goes down). Meanwhile we get lots of soul-plumbing from both Barrabas and Lee; the former because he just doesn’t want a woman on the team, the latter because she wonders what exactly she’s doing here.

There is also a sexual undercurrent between the two, capped off in a scene where Lee strips off her clothes and demands that Barrabas take her to bed, to “get sex out of the way.” A chagrined Barrabas hurries off, properly chastized, but this is the closest we come to sex in the entire novel; we are, of course, in the sex-shunning, gun-loving world of Gold Eagle. You can take all those sleazy adult shenanigans over to Zebra Books, buster! Meanwhile we are assured that Barrabas does in fact have a steady lay; some gal named Erika Dykstra, the sister of Barrabas’s favorite gun seller.

So once the team is finally put together, Barrabas ships ‘em off to Majorca…where they’ll train for two weeks! My friends, what the hell kind of a shit-kicking mercenary team is this? It’s for this reason I say that The Barrabas Run reads more like a “serious” piece of war fiction and less like a bloody and pulpy (and fun) men’s adventure novel. But yeah, more text is sacrificed as we read about the “Eagle Squad” learning to work together as one unit, and poor old Joseph Noboctu continues to rot in his cell.

As for Barrabas himself, he’s busy gallivanting around the Mediterranean; one thing I have to say about Jack Canon is the dude enjoys vicariously traveling through his characters. In his Killmaster installments, Nick Carter racks up some serious frequent flyer miles, and Nile Barrabas is no different here, even going all the way up to Paris (where he briefly meets with Erika and her gun-running brother). But even here too much time is spent on the mechanics of arranging an illegal arms shipment, of navigating political red tape. You almost want to check the spine and make sure you aren’t reading a book by Robert Ludlum.

Anyway, The Barrabas Run goes to 195 pages (with several pages afterwards made up of pointless appendices about Barrabas and his time in ‘Nam)…and it isn’t until friggin’ page 148 that the actual “action stuff” even begins! And mind you, this isn’t a “big print” kind of book; there’s precious little white space here. It’s all just deadening “shadowy undercover ops world”-type stuff, which for me is a chore to read. Again, it’s all almost identical to Canon’s later Blood Raid, which similarly squandered a promising, pulpy plot with too much “realism.”

Even when the action goes down it lacks much spark, let alone any payoff. For example, early on we briefly meet Field Marshal Haile Mogabe, who captures Joseph Noboctu in his attempt to wrest control of Kaluba. Mogabe is often compared to Idi Amin, which makes the reader assume the author is going to give the bastard more of a comeuppance when the bullets start flying. Instead, Mogabe basically just shows up for a sentence or two toward the end, only to be anticlimatically blown away by Barrabas!

Instead, more attention is given to the long story of how our heroes escape the terrorist compound, once they’ve saved Noboctu; again, it’s all very similar to Roberts’s Hanoi Hellground, which featured a similarly-anticlimactic denoument which shed more detail on the team escaping after their assault on the VC fortress. Here too Canon doesn’t dwell much on the action or gore. Other than a brief mention of Billy Starfoot almost hacking off some guard’s head (an incident which happens off-page, mind you), the climax is practically bloodless.

Rather than Mogabe, a sadist named Karl Heiss proves to be the true villain of the piece; he would return in future installments, where as I recall he was given more room to shine. Here Canon (or one of the other two authors) shoehorns in arbitrary mentions in flashback of how bad Heiss is; he almost got Barrabas killed on several past skirmishes. Now he’s working for Mogabe’s forces and trying again to kill Barrabas. It’s all built up so that the reader expects that this time Barrabas might get his vengeance, but of course he is denied. And goofily enough, it plays out with Heiss running after Barrabas and team as they leave on their jeep and asking if he can bum a ride!

I know I’m railing on Canon, but truth be told he isn’t a bad writer. He brings his characters to life and he has a gift for dialog. The only problem is, I think he’s writing in the wrong genre. The dude’s skills seem more suited to political thrillers and the like, the sub-Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum stuff that others appreciate a whole lot more than I do. What’s odd is you’d figure the guy would’ve made more money writing in that genre, not to mention that he would’ve been able to publish under his own name. Of course it’s likely he was using the men’s adventure genre as his entrance into the writing field, but given how long he stayed in this particular genre, one has to wonder.

The Barrabas Run wasn’t all that great, and I’m glad it was the only volume Canon wrote. To further my theory that this was intended as a standalone novel, it ends with the “Eagle Squad” safely escorting Noboctu to freedom and then breaking up, each going their own way, Barrabas wondering when they’ll be needed again, if ever.

Little did he know he’d be back just a few short weeks later, but this time in a book by an author more suited to his specific gut-busting skills…

7 comments:

AndyDecker said...

At least it is one of the most inspired titles of a GE series. :-)

I got these as a part of the subscription package back then. I seem to remember that the novels had a bit of continuity which for GE was rare.

But they tried to be more realistic in their approach to SOBs, which was a bit odd. Your remark with Ludlum is spot on. Or maybe MacLean. Canon's plot seem to owe a lot to the classic Wild Geese.

On the other hand, GE used to be much more experimental in their output. They did a lot of trilogys beside their series, and some were quite interesting like Jake Strait Bogeyman, a kind of cyberpunk/P.I./dystopia.

Btw, nice reading the blurb for Glorious Trash in the new issue of EQMM.

RJR said...

I wrote a couple of these, but didn't enjoy it and stopped.

Brian Drake said...

I only head a handful of SOBs too. Never could get into them. About the only thing I really remember about the series is that they had an installment called SHOW NO MERCY and I liked the title so much that 20 years later I stole it for a project of my own.

Johny Malone said...

There is a series about a cop named Paradise, written by Jack Canon. Is the same author? Almost no information about it.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Andy -- The Wild Geese! That's it exactly. I knew this novel reminded me of something. Also, I had to do a Google search on "EQMM" -- do you mean Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine? If so, that is cool to hear that they mentioned me. Thanks for letting me know!

RJR -- I didn't realize you're Robert Randisi! I have your SOBs novels as well as a few of your Killmaster volumes...I'll probably get to the former before the latter, as I'm trying to read SOBs in order. I'm looking forward to them.

Brian -- I have a review for SOBs #2 coming up in a few weeks, and it was much better than this one. You might enjoy them if you give them another chance sometime. I agree, Show No Mercy is a great title. (My favorite is still "Kill!" from the Marksman series.)

Johnny -- Yes, I saw those, like 3 books about a cop named Paradise? I'm betting it's the same guy. I think I'll stick with his Killmaster novels, though.

AndyDecker said...

Yes, I meant Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the May issue. It is in Bill Crider's column "Blog Bytes".

Felicity Walker said...

A cyberpunk PI sounds like a good premise. I’ll keep an eye out for Jake Strait at the used bookstores!