Monday, April 20, 2015
SOBs #2: The Plains Of Fire
SOBs #2: The Plains Of Fire, by Jack Hild
February, 1984 Gold Eagle Books
The second volume of SOBs is much better than the first, and I’d recommend anyone new to this series to just skip Jack Canon’s first installment and start with this one, which was written by Alan Philipson, who would go on to become one of the regular authors on the series.
Philipson wisely avoids all of the scene-setting and character-building which stalled Canon’s first volume, doling out brief blocks of background for each of the Soldiers of Barrabas as he introduces them in action. He also gets to the good stuff much more quickly, and does a great job in killing off the despicable villains in memorable ways. Compare to Canon, who took forever to even get to any action, and then quickly dispensed with the villains in almost perfunctory fashion.
And the villains are quite despicable this time; they’re a legion of Islamic Revolutionary Guards, aka Pasdars, who when we meet them are in the process of torturing one of their own. The place is Iran, the man being tortured is a fervent Muslim who idolizes the Ayatollah, and the sadist in charge of the man’s torture is Razod, who has the scientist stripped down and then hammers the man’s balls to a chair, and then sets him on fire!! Why is Razod doing this? Because the scientists have discovered that the nukes they’ve been working feverishly on are going to be used in terrorist actions, and they’ve complained about it.
Well, what else can the US government do but call in the Soldiers of Barrabas? I mean, what with all those goddam liberals it isn’t like they can send in Delta Force or the Marines or whatever. So once again our mysterious Senator tasks Walker Jessup with the mission: for the SOBs to covertly venture into Iran, kill everyone, disarm the nuclear bombs, and make the whole thing look like a nuclear accident. Jessup, who has a much more contentious relationship with the Senator in Philipson’s hands, only agrees to the mission if the pay will be $200k per person, plus expenses.
The team this time is the same as the last, an unwieldy group of ten mercenaries, save for Lopez, who we are informed is still “recuperating” from the injuries he sustained last time. Barrabas is back in Amsterdam, hanging out in the heavy metal-playing nightclub of his friend/gun-runner Gunther Dykstra, the brother of Erika, Barrabas’s current woman. After meeting with Jessup Barrabas calls together his SOBs, and thankfully Philipson doesn’t make this “the” novel; within just a few pages he has them all in “The Bunker,” aka the rolling compound owned by Dr. Lee Sutton in Malaga.
Lee by the way has gotten tougher, something Philipson makes a point of calling out in the narrative. Since the previous mission, some time ago (months?), she’s continued to train, to the point where she’s in better shape than most of the other mercs, who have spent their time off laying around, getting drunk and getting laid. Philipson juggles the big group of characters around, but you can already tell in this earliest volume that there are certain favorites, besides Barrabas; namely, Lee, Billy Two, Nanos the Greek, and Liam O’Toole. The others sort of fade into the woodwork.
Barrabas lays down the dangers of the job, but the team’s all for it. They head to Bahrain in various groups, with Gunther using his gunrunning contacts to do the brunt of the cover story, using a shipment of helicopter gear shift boxes as a means to convey the team in-country. Philipson brings the local world to life with the team negotiating with the shady owner of a dhow, one which is powered by four big engines and will get them across into Iran, but they’re certain the dude is planning to kill them.
This is an almost First Blood Part II-esque scene, with the three smallest members of the team going down into the dhow to search for any hidden attackers. Lee of course is the first to find them, and when the dudes come out of the shadows and grab her, she proves herself again to be a completely different character than she was in the first book, killing one of them with a blow to the heart and then firing a gun point-blank into the crotch of the other! By the way, one thing to mention is that, while there’s plentiful violence, Philipson does not exploit the gore; usually, when someone is shot, we just read that he falls down.
The Pasdars are on a remote outpost that’s surrounded by electronic surveillance. The scientists, unbeknownst to the SOBs, are being driven to create four nukes; Razod, the sadist in charge of the place, makes off with one of them with the express purpose of bombing Haifa. Barrabas and team are not aware of this as they make their late-night attack on the base, which again is carried out with a great sense of tension and suspense and payoff – again, all of it so, so much better than the stuff we read back in the first volume.
Philipson displays what to me appears to be a bit of a military understanding, with the SOBs using knowledge and training to get past the surveillance devices, and then going for quiet kills or sniper shots to take out the various guards. But of course the way these things go, soon enough the cat’s out of the bag and it’s rock and roll on full auto. None of the SOBs really stand out in this sequence, even Billy Two, who eventually would become the most interesting character in the series (thanks to Philipson), starting with #6: Red Hammer Down.
And another big difference from Canon’s approach to the series is Philipson’s willingness to dispense with the SOBs themselves. While none of them were killed in the previous book, here three of them die in battle, and avoid this paragraph if you don’t want it to be spoiled. But Al Chen is the first to go, gunned down in a firefight; redneck Wiley Boone is next (and his passing barely registers on your consciousness), and finally Vince Biondi is the last to go. His death in particular is very well done, with race driver Biondi stealing away with the truck that holds the fourth nuke and barrelling toward the base for a fiery climax.
An even better send-off is delivered to Razod, who has hitched a ride on the back of that bomb-carrying truck, and hops off it a few miles outside of the base, realizing a madman’s behind the wheel – not understanding English, Razod has no idea that the SOBs have infiltrated his base, killed everyone, set the three nukes to blow, and have now set this last one to blow along with them in just a few minutes. But he doesn’t die in the catastrophic nuclear blast, instead rendered into what is for the most part is a mutant out of a post-nuke pulp, with his skin hanging from him like curtains and his tongue and face destroyed.
While it wasn’t the greatest men’s adventure novel I’ve ever read, The Plains Of Fire was still an entertaining, enjoyable read, and it makes me glad I picked up the entire SOBs series for a pittance the other year; I’ll look forward to reading more volumes.