Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Butcher #3: Keepers Of Death

The Butcher #3: Keepers Of Death, by Stuart Jason
April, 1972  Pinnacle Books

I’ve picked up several volumes of The Butcher over the years, but this is the first one I’ve actually read. The series was one of the first Executioner cash-ins and ran for a respectable 35 volumes, with James Dockery apparently writing the first 26 volumes (with a fellow named Lee Floren handling a few of those), before Michael Avallone took over from volume 27 to the end.

I was under the impression that this series was another product of Lyle Kenyon Engel’s BCI, but that turns out not to be the case: The Butcher was actually copyright Script Associates, an outfit that also had the copyright on The Big Brain. Interestingly, the writing style is of a piece with Engel’s productions, with that same sort of professional polish to the pulp. Dockery, like those BCI authors, is capable of delivering a lurid tale while at the same time doling out prose that’s above the typical level of the genre. When I came across the phrase “pustules of uninspired light from the street lamps,” on page one, I knew I was in for a different sort of men’s adventure novel.

I’ve been sold on this series ever since I read Zwolf’s awesome description: "The bad guys were always comically gruesome fiends, covered with pus-filled warts and such, and so sexually depraved they'd rape a rock heap if they thought there was a snake in it."   And he wasn’t exaggerating, as Keepers Of Death opens with our hero, Bucher (aka “The Butcher” to his old Mafia pals), taking out a pair of deformed sadists who are hot on his trail, looking to collect the $100,000 bounty placed on Bucher’s head for being “the only man to leave the Mafia – and live:”

Revulsion stirred anew in Bucher’s stomach at the sight of Nick Macellaio’s unwholesome countenance. There was something decidedly reptillian about the man. His head was flat, built on the front of his neck and protruding oddly; his sloping brow and nose blended into a plane that ended at his bloodless lips. The man didn’t exactly look like a snake or lizard, and yet…

Macellaio’s flat, lizard-like eyes roved over Bucher hungrily and the skin of his lower abdomen and loins tingled deliciously in anticipation of killing the man who thought he could quit the Syndicate and live. A ribbon-thin length of needle-pointed tongue darted straight out from behind his bloodless lips; flicked neither to right or left, just darted straight out and back half a dozen times – this moment was culmination of a long-cherished dream.

I actually laughed out loud as I read this, and it was only a few pages into the book – always the sign of a fun and trashy read. While I’ll always admire Don Pendleton’s trendsetting work on the original Executioner books, the fact is you’d never read anything like the above in that series; Pendleton for the most part played it straight. But personally I prefer the whacked-out crazy shit. I mean did you read where the dude’s loins “tingled deliciously in anticipation” of killing Bucher??

Bucher himself is typical of the men’s adventure hero of the day: a stoic lone wolf type who works for a shadowy, CURE-like government outfit called White Hat. Curiously he works for them under the code name “Iceman,” but I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just call him “Butcher,” so as to cater to the series title. He gets his missions directly from the director of the organization, who in this volume of the series at least goes without a name. Bucher is 37 and had a life before White Hat – he was a notorious mobster, first known for his super-fast gun technique and later as a sort of executive of the entire east coast.

Due to a sudden flash of moral convictions and whatnot, Bucher abruptly decided to leave the Mafia, and was thereafter approached by White Hat to be their top field operative. Since reading Keepers Of Death I’ve picked up the first volume of the series, Kill Quick Or Die, but I’m betting Bucher’s origin story isn’t much expounded upon there; men’s adventure authors of the ‘70s usually didn’t waste the reader’s time with origin stories. But again, due to that polished writing Bucher’s background is capably dispensed with in just a few pages in this volume.

Bucher’s trademark weapon is a P-38 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a silencer (which is “illegal for even God to own!” exclaims a redneck sheriff in this volume), and the sound it makes when fired is “Koosh!” Dockery actually writes it this way, with the quotation marks and everything. “Koosh! Koosh!” After a while I got some enjoyment out of imagining that Bucher himself was saying this as he fired it, like a little kid yelling “Bang! Bang!” with his toy pistol.

Bucher’s current case has him in Memphis, tracking down a missing East German scientist (who emigrated to the US years ago); a scientist known for his “outer-space vehicles.” This turns out to be a very convoluted scenario which first has Bucher impersonating Macellaio (ie the dude who was trying to kill him) at a hippie commune, where Bucher-as-Macellaio is to assassinate someone at the Corn Pone Hoe Down(!), and all of it might or might not have to do with the missing scientist. This early commune stuff reminded me of the ‘60s hippie lit I was into reading (for whatever reason) several years ago. It may be hard going for most.

Luckily it’s over pretty soon, as after fending off the advances of an overly-horny hippie girl named Nola – not to mention running into another woman, this one an old flame of Bucher’s named Vicky Bjornsen who just so happens to be living at the commune (coincidence is to be damned when you have a contract to write several books a year) – Bucher offs another Syndicate goon and is shortly thereafter put on a plane to Sweden. There he continues to puzzle over this “goddamned bizarre caper” and sits in an anti-establishment bar called the Che and allows a hulking American expat to heap insults at him, all as part of his nightclub act. Finally Bucher meets his contact here – yet another woman, one who like the other two is overcome with a sudden lust for him.

Dockery doesn’t deliver any sex scenes, at least in this volume, but there’s lots of mention of “husky voices” and “the smell of feminine musk” as these ladies get all hot and bothered over the thought of screwing a professional assassin. Bucher for his part is all business, treating the women with brusque disdain. He gets laid by a few different women this volume, but Dockery is firmly in the “cut to the next chapter” mold, never once detailing the sexual shenanigans. After boffing this particular willing lady Bucher shortly thereafter continues chasing wild geese to Rome, where he gradually learns that this whole entire novel has been a waste of time.

Strangely, for a book with blocks and blocks of paragraphs, Keepers Of Death has what amounts to a toss-off of a plot, as if Dockery couldn’t figure out what exactly he wanted to happen but just kept hitting the typewriter keys anyway. Around page 100 Bucher figures out that it’s all been a sham, some contrived plot to keep him out of the States for some reason. Oh, and it turns out Vicky, that old flame of his, might’ve had the answers all along! It was a puzzling experience reading this novel, as Dockery’s wordspinning makes it clear that he knows how to write, which makes you expect more from him when it comes to the plot. But it’s really almost surreal in how it just randomly hops around.

The book also has an unusual vibe because the prose comes off as very literary, yet for all that the novel is as lurid could be, particularly when it comes to the twisted sadists of the Mafia. Women do not fare well in this novel, one in particular who is “ravished” and “gutted” off-page by a Mayan knife-expert for the Syndicate who has a hideous, wart-covered face. Another woman falls on thirty thousand volts and is fried to a crisp – that is, once her hands have been shot off by Bucher and her eyeballs have exploded from the electricity. But she turns out to be the villain behind it all so that’s okay. Also in this volume Bucher kills a woman for the first time, which reminded me of Mark “Penetrator” Hardin overcoming the same problem in The Penetrator #4.

As for Bucher himself, he’s not the most fun men’s adventure protagonist, always on the job (it seems like the entire book consists of him pushing away eager women) and a bit too dour. In the early pages he delivers a few sarcastic lines but as the novel progresses he’s firmly in cynical mode. I also had a hard time believing that this former Syndicate hitman/executive really cared that a bunch of “sex-mad drug users” were plotting to blow up Washington with an atomic warhead, which by the way finaly turns out to be the plot Bucher’s trying to stop. Even the finale is a bit anticlimactic, with Bucher heading back to that damn commune with a submachine gun and taking out a few hippies.

Not much is known of James Dockery, and it would appear we have James Reasoner to thank for even knowing who he was, especially given a letter about Dockery James posted on his blog back in 2007. One thing to note is that Dockery’s style is very literate, insofar as this genre is concerned, with quite a bit of word-painting and metaphors. In some ways Keepers Of Death is almost as overwritten as Terry Harknett’s Stark series, but not to that extent; while the excessive description does get wearying at times, it must be admitted that it makes the book come off a whole lot more classy than it has any right to be.

But still, the excessive description does get to be a little wearying. The novel’s only 190 pages but takes a lot longer to read than it should. Each page is filled with huge blocks of paragraphs; as a point of reference, Dockery is along the lines of Manning Lee Stokes when it comes to the overwriting. He’s also a bit like Marc Olden in that he gets a bit too much into the heads of his characters, sometimes to the detriment of the action. But then, he’s also a bit like Dean W. Ballenger and Joseph Rosenberger at times, with goofy “Syndicate talk” along the lines of the former author (nonsensical Mob terms like “dumb-john,” “hey-boy,” etc) and Bucher’s goofy “curses” calling to mind the latter author (ie “God on a gatepost!”).

So while it was a bit slow moving, and riddled with a head-scratcher of a “plot,” Keepers Of Death was sufficiently entertaining and lurid enough that I’m glad I have about 20 or so more volumes of the series. If anything the freakish Syndicate goons Bucher wastes each volume will be enough to make me keep coming back for more.


Zwolf said...

Excellent review! :) Yeah, Butcher's one of my favorites. The trick to 'em is to space them out, because if you read two in a row the formula starts becoming too obvious. They have probably the most definite pattern of any series I've ever read. It's always a first chapter where Mafia goons (always perverted creeps he remembers) come after Bucher, he gets the drop on them, they yell "The Butcher!" and then they exchange a few smart-ass barbs back and forth about the old days in the mob before "Koosh! Koosh!" Then some sheriff will invariably talk about the Gebracht (I think?) silencer being illegal for Christ Himself to own (it's a great line, but I don't know how every single cop manages to come up with it), and then it's off to the spy stuff, with some exotic girl who often doesn't fare well. And every single book ends with a variation on the same line - "the bitter taste of defeat" on Butcher's tongue (check 'em, it's hilarious!). Even if he's saved the world again. Dockery (and Floren) must've decided that's the best ending possible and so why change it? Poor Butcher. Even Spider-Man got to have a good day once in a while...

Two of the books even have the exact same first chapter -- they just changed the names of the hit-men and cut-and-pasted it in. Guess there was a deadline to meet or something. I'll admit, I felt a little cheated by that one. I think they assumed people weren't going to read every book. (William W. Johnstone was horrible about that, by the way - some of his books are more than half reprints from earlier books).

But, despite all of that, they're all pretty entertaining, with a pseudo-Mickey-Spillane vibe to them. The bad guys are all super-degenerates, and Bucher is super-badass with the P-38 (in one, he was even able to fire it down the barrel of another guy's gun!). The writing has its own vibe to it... junky, but lovable. They're kind of like the literary equivalent of Funyuns; not everybody's favorite, probably not good for you, but they're the only ones like 'em. But, I treat them like Richard Laymon horror novels -- I love Laymon, but I make sure I only read him every year or so, to give his pattern a little time to freshen up my mind.

larry said...

Lee Floren was a prolific writer of Westerns going back to the pulp mags. I had know idea that he wrote some Butcher novels. And like Zwold says-space them out. They do conform to a formula.

Sleaze PB Life said...

Lee Floren wrote a few sleaze titles, too. (Under pseudonyms, of course.)

James Reasoner said...

I enjoy Dockery's work because it's so distinctive. I always like a book that couldn't have been written by anybody else. (That's one reason I'm an Avallone fan, that distinctive voice.) Lee Floren wrote only a couple of Butcher novels and I'm not sure how he got involved with the series. I'm not very fond of his Westerns, although some of the early ones are okay.

AndyDecker said...

Right, the "bitter taste of defeat". :-) No, Bucher the Butcher (great name) is not a happy guy. He must have been a hit on those Mafia partys.

You really can't read too many in a row of this series, it kills the fun. But Dockery has such a distinctive style that transforms the mostly senseless plots into á good read.

But I never could enjoy Avallone's run on the series.

James Reasoner said...

I don't have one of the books handy to check, but as I recall, the phrase was always some variation of "The bitter-sour taste of defeat was strong under his tongue." I swiped that a time or two in my books as a little tip of the hat to Dockery. He wrote at least one porn novel for Pendulum Books under the name Raymond Doyle and may have done some plantation novels under the Stuart Jason name, although I believe most of the Stuart Jason plantation novels were by Hugh Zachary.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'll take the advice given and space out my reading of the Butcher books. As for the recurring phrase, I just checked "Keepers Of Death" and the very last line of the book is:

"A fatigue hued by despair crept over him, a sense of utter futility touched his heart and he turned wearily from the scene of destruction to walk slowly back through the tunnel toward the cabin, the bitter-sour taste of death strong and thick under his tongue."

Mrs. Poopenplatz said...

Don't recall which book it was, but the best line was something along the lines of "He just HAD to have been reincarnated - no one could be that stupid in just one lifetime."