Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dark Angel #1: The Dream Girl Caper

Dark Angel #1: The Dream Girl Caper, by James D. Lawrence
January, 1975  Pyramid Books

The Dark Angel series starts off on strong footing with a fun trip back to the sleazy ‘70s, James D. Lawrence capturing the fun and goofy vibe of a Blaxploitation movie. This series could be loglined as “Pam Grier in Banacek,” and our capable heroine, Angela “Angie” Harpe, comes off as more memorable and likable than The Baroness and Cherry Delight combined.

And friends you know you’re in for a sleazy good time when, within a few pages of her introduction, Angie’s already doing a strip-tease to a Tina Turner song (on her state-of-the-art quadraphonic sound system, naturally), all for the benefit of some dude she just met. The dude claims to be a reporter for Manhattan Magazine, and after relaying her convoluted backstory (from ghetto poverty to highly-paid insurance investigator, with tenures as a cop, fashion model, hooker, and Radcliffe student along the way), Angie’s already shucking her clothes and allowing the dude to give her a little oral pleasure.

But this is just our heroine’s gambit to distract the man, whom she knows to be an imposter. Angie you see is “the Dark Angel,” as she’s known to the criminal underworld, a tireless pursuer of justice; her trademark sign is very reminiscent of the seal of the Spider: an image of a harp-playing angel which she stamps on the foreheads of her victims (whom she does not kill, as opposed to the Spider). Apparently Angie’s Dark Angel activities have only recently gotten off the ground; as The Dream Girl Caper opens, her legend in the underworld has only just begun to grow to the point where it’s reached the awareness of the mainstream press.

And like an old pulp hero, Angie’s double life is kept secret, so that though the crooks (and the cops) know the Dark Angel is supposedly a beautiful black chick, they don’t know who she is. All of this really does give the series a bit of a “pulp hero for the ‘70s” feel, only with more of a lurid and sleazy overlay. That being said, Angie is not as bloodthirsty as other female protagonists in the world of men’s adventure books; whereas the Baroness kills with nonchalance, Angie is more prone to use her karate and judo skills to just knock someone out and then tie them up.

Anyway, the faux-reporter turns out to be a private eye himself, one from Chicago who was hired to get the scoop on Angie for some unspecified reasons. Angie sends him away (after pissing on his hand…?!) and later finds out that this dude, Tony Troy, recently pulled the same “reporter” stunt on Quentin Wise, millionaire owner of Colt’s Cigarettes. Wise’s company is running an incredibly convoluted treasure hunt/sweepstakes in which one lucky winner will win three million dollars. We get more detail on this from the many scenes featuring Garth Trent, the head adman working on Wise’s contest, and the only other person besides Wise who knows where the three million bucks will be hidden.

Garth’s wife Vale turns out to be the titular “dream girl.” A hotstuff blonde who keeps having nightmares which seem to predict things that happen in reality, Vale’s most recent dream concerns a car crashing on some desolate road. After a bit of nodescript banging (Lawrence’s sex scenes only go on for a few sentences, by the way, as compared to the paragraphs of purple prose in The Baroness), Garth ventures out into the night – only to see a car speed by and crash along the desolate road near their New Jersey home. But what comes off as even more puzzling is when Garth finds a newspaper clipping in Vale’s purse, a clipping which announces the sale of Mingo Island, off the Jersey coast.

This is puzzling because Mingo Island is where the three million dollar prize money is going to be stashed, but only Garth and Quentin Wise know this. So why does Vale have a newspaper clipping about it in her purse, and why has she never mentioned it to Garth? Suspecting something’s up, Garth hires Angie Darke, whom he’s read about in the paper. There’s instant chemistry between the two, but then Angie has instant chemistry with every guy in the novel – it’s hilarious in a way that The Dream Girl Caper is almost designed to infuriate Women’s Libbers, as Angie’s endowments are constantly being checked out and commented on by every single man she meets – and we’re informed how she gets off on it.

Vale has weekly sessions with a psychiatrist named Dr. Bruno Baxt, and Angie makes his office the first place to check out in her investigation. Here Lawrence excels in another sleazy setpiece as the gnomish Baxt hypnotizes an undercover Angie, has her strip – and then begins jerking himself off as he fingers her! And to continue with the whole exploitation vibe that our author captures so nicely, we learn that Angie in’t hypnotized at all, and has just been going along with the good doctor’s finger-based assault because she’s been enjoying it! Eventually Angie discovers that Baxt has a cathouse hidden within his office suite, with his good-looking female patients whoring themselves out to various bigwigs.

Vale Trent turns out to be one of the doctor’s top gals, though she only has two customers – Quentin Wise himself, and someone only listed as “X” in Baxt’s otherwise-comprehensive black book. At first I thought Lawrence was going to go for a mind control sort of thing, with these “whores” really being patients suffering from Baxt’s hypnosis, turned into virtual MK-Ultra style hookers. But unfortunately that doesn’t turn out to be the case; we eventually learn that Vale is a willing participant in the cathouse scheme, which renders the whole “let’s hypnotize Angie” scenario kind of puzzling. But that’s missing the point, I guess.

More digging will uncover the fact that “X” is a notorious Mafia hitman. Angie also has to break it to Garth that his wife is not only a prostitute but that he’s a double cuckhold. This of course gives Angie and Garth the opportunity to go at it themselves; Angie as usual comes on strong to the guy, calling his office and identifying herself to his secretary as “his black panthress.” Interesting to note, as in the second volume, that Angie only has sex with white men. No doubt this is to cater to what I assume was the overwhelming white readership of men’s adventure fiction, but it’s still interesting in a way – we’re told she’s had a colorful history, so to speak, but so far as the Dark Angel series itself is concerned, Angie Harpe only digs white meat.

Lawrence doesn’t dole out much action in The Dream Girl Caper, unlike the second volume, which was peppered with the occasional fight and torture sequence. There are also many moments where Angie and Garth will hide and watch as other characters do things. This plays out especially in a bit where we learn how cold Vale Trent really is: telling Garth she’s going to spend the weekend in the woods of Pennsylvannia with an old college girlfriend, who has a cabin out there, Vale later calls him in a panic saying she’s had another nightmare, that someone’s going to kill her here in the cabin. Would Garth please come over and scope out the place in the middle of the night?

Angie’s already on the scene, having bugged the cabin. When Garth shows, the two crouch in the woods and listen as Vale vigorously screws Quentin Wise in the cabin – the story about the old college friend being a bunch of crap, of course. Then someone shows up outside the cabin, and Vale demands that Quentin take this “starter pistol” out there and scare him away, insisting that he aim the gun at the dude and pull the trigger. Quentin does as ordered, only to discover too late that it’s a real gun and he just killed someone – and also that the whole thing was just photographed by “X” himself, Mafia hitman Vinny Reggio, who was hiding in the bushes. But here’s the thing: the guy Quentin just murdered, who turns out to be Tony Troy, was supposed to be Garth!

In other words, Garth’s own wife just set him up for his death. So Garth does what any other shocked husband would do…he goes back with Angie to her motel room and screws the hell out of her. Our heroine meanwhile has figured out what’s going on – Vale and Vinny are plotting to heist the three million, which they plan to do by making a blackmailed Quentin Wise replace the real loot with a bunch of counterfeit. Angie’s plan is to heist the heisters, and Garth gamely agrees. The final quarter of the novel is more of a sequence of turnarounds and reveals rather than a slam-bang action sort of thing.

Outfitted in black jump suits and masks with “plastic eyelets” (which of course reminded my geek senses of the similar “plastic suit” of another Lyle Kenyon Engel production, the John Eagle Expeditor series) and armed with Uzis, Angie and Garth get the jump on Vale and Vinny, just as they themselves have gotten the jump on Quentin Wise, who is in the middle of delivering the three million to a helicopter transport. But more people arrive on the scene, bullets start flying, and soon Angie and Garth are on the ‘copter, which is shortly thereafter shot out of the sky by a ship on a river below. This turns out to be helmed by yet more Mafioso, one of whom is a boss who wants the three million for himself.

The novel’s only real action sequence occurs on Mingo Island, with Angie and Garth caught in the middle of a sort of gang war, with more bullets flying. But only some random Mafia gunman gets killed in it; as with the second installment, the novel is for the most part bloodless. Reversals and reveals continue to assail our heroes (and us readers) with a finale seeing Angie back at Bruno Baxt’s office – turns out the psychiatrist had his own heist in mind. Here Angie gets in a knockdown, dragout fight with Baxt’s hulking “dyke” secretary. Both she and Baxt are recipients of Angie’s “dark angel” stamp on the forehead, but again they aren’t left for dead, just knocked out and tied up.

Angie and Garth end up making off with the three million, but given that they’re the heroes they decide to “anonymously” tip the authorities where it can be found, something for which Angie will receive $200,000 for from the insurance company that’s hired her to find the missing money. They split this evenly, and I think The Emerald Oil Caper made passing mention of this extra cash in Angie’s account, courtesy this particular caper. Otherwise the Dark Angel series appears to have been free of much continuity, similar to most every other Lyle Kenyon Engel/BCI publication.

The kinky bent of the series is already in effect in this first volume. Lawrence must’ve wanted to set a record for finger-rapes in a novel, with not only the aforementioned bit with Dr. Baxt but a later sequence where Angie is briefly captured by a mob boss who strips her down, ties her to a table, and proceeds to jam his fingers up her ass! This kinky bent is evident throughout the novel, like when Angie thumbs through Dr. Baxt’s catalog of whores and dwells on the shots of Vale Trent, noting her “perfectly neat and classically ringleted triangle of pubic hair”!  You can’t get more sleazy ‘70s than that, my friends. Just as ‘70s is Angie’s wardrobe, each item of which is amply described and of course so revealing that she leaves men panting as she waltzes by them.

Lawrence’s writing is good, with that same sort of professional polish as other BCI authors; I’m always impressed Engel was able to find writers with such similar styles. Lawrence could’ve easily served as Paul Edwards or Paul Kenyon or have turned in one of the Engel-produced volumes of the Killmaster, his style meshes so well with what I guess we could term the “BCI house style.” Compare this to say the Sharpshooter or Marksman books, which had drastically disparate styles each volume. But also Lawrence is good with dialog, setup, description, etc; there might be a little too much POV-hopping for my taste, but that’s par for the course in this genre.

Anyway, The Dream Girl Caper is another enjoyably sleazy Dark Angel adventure, with a fun-loving, likable protagonist and several memorable minor characters. It might not be as over-the-top crazy as The Emerald Oil Caper, but it’s still pretty great and it’s a damn shame this series is so scarce and overpriced on the used books market.


Zwolf said...

Thanks for the review! I've been curious about this series for a long time, but all the copies out there are crazy-freakin'-'spensive so I never took the plunge. Good to know what they're like, anyhow.

RJR said...

Don't forget in two of the books there are some pretty explicit lesbian scenes of Angie and other women. These books were not bad.


Mel Odom said...

Looks like James D. Lawrence might still be around.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Mel. Unfortunately Lawrence died back in 1994 -- I guess the folks at just aren't aware of that.