Monday, July 27, 2015

Scorpio


Scorpio, by Steve Lawson
July, 1975  Pyramid Books

Scorpio is society’s speedballing revenge on an age of outrages, a lethal era when our world, rigid with fear, is engorged with blood. He is the first shot in an assassination of the unspeakable…

              -- from the hyperbolic back cover

Yet another obscure crime fiction paperback copyright book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, Scorpio was the first and only appearance of its titiluar protagonist, Lt. Edd Scorpio, a Los Angeles-based homicide/narcotics cop very much in the Bullitt mode. According to Hawk’s Authors’ Psuedonyms, “Steve Lawson” was in reality Robert H. Turner.

This is one of those instances in which Engel clearly had a different story in mind than what his author delivered. The cover art and back cover copy make Scorpio sound like a blitzkrieg of violence and cop thrills, but Turner instead turns in a sloooow-moving tale that becomes almost an endurance test to read. The book’s only 190 pages, with the typical small print of almost all Engel productions, but it reads like it’s around 300 pages due to the glacier pace. Not to mention Turner’s fussy, convoluted writing style.

Turner was the last editor on the Spider magazine and reportedly rewrote the vast majority of longtime writer Norvell Page’s final manuscripts; in his 1970 autobiography Some Of My Best Friends Are Writers But I Wouldn’t Want My Daughter To Marry One, Turner supposedly dismisses Page’s writing as “typical pulp stuff” without merit. (I’m sure I read this in Robert Sampson’s Spider, but having recently gotten Turner’s autobio via InterLibrary Loan, I couldn’t find the quote anywhere in the book...the dude didn’t even include an index!)  The irony here is that Page’s writing, judging from the Spider novels I’ve read, is leaps and bounds above Turner’s. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Hawk’s Pseudonyms I would’ve sworn Scorpio was written by William Crawford. It reads almost exactly like his work, with the forward momentum constantly stalled by pointless digressions and diversions.

Anyway, Scorpio is in his early 40s and now works almost in a freelance fashion, a specialist who helps out the LAPD on tough cases. He drives a ’68 Jag that has a phone in it and even has his own secretary, a black lady who talks in ‘50s slang. He carries a Cobra .38 revolver and has curly black hair, and you might as well just go ahead and envision ‘70s-era Elliott Gould in the movie that plays in your mind. In backstory that isn’t delivered until midway through, we learn that Scorpio was an orphan, left as a baby outside of a oprhanage with the name “Edd” (sp) on a note on his blankets. A government employee, heavy into astrology, calcuated that the baby must’ve been born under the sign of Scorpio, so that became Edd’s last name.

Scorpio has an ex-wife and two teenaged kids. He has a casual sex thing going with a half-Japanese gal his age named Mugsie; in one of the novel’s many, many backstories we learn that Mugsie is a widow, her husband killed in a freak train wreck. Scorpio’s got friends all over the place, in particular a retired pro football player turned private eye named Al Poularis. This guy is working on a case for wealthy socialite Madeline Stewart-Brooke, whose suicide opens the novel; ravaged by her heroin addiction, the lady has blown her brains out, leaving a note that she hopes her seventeen year-old daughter won’t fall pray to the same troubles.

Only, we quickly learn that the daughter is also dead, of a heroin OD. This turns out to be the real cause of Madeline Stewart-Brooke’s death; the gunshot to the head was delivered by her heroin contact, who showed up to discover the famous woman dead and panicked, hoping to distract the cops into thinking she’d shot herself. Later the heroin contact too will be rubbed out, with more and more underworld lowlifes meeting violent ends. And all of them knew Stewart-Brooke or her daughter, and all of them are dying before they can talk to Edd Scorpio, who is now actively working the case.

Here’s the thing about Scorpio: it reads a lot like a private eye novel. You almost wonder why Al Poularis wasn’t the main protagonist. As for Scorpio himself, what with his car phone and his black secretary and the way he works solo, it’s almost like you’re reading a Mannix novelization. There’s no cop stuff like you’d expect, with random shootouts or car chases; rather, Scorpio just gets on the Stewart-Brooke case and chases leads, leads which ultimately lead him to a blackmailing scheme – again, all of it just like something you’d read in a private eye novel.

Something you do have to admire about these ‘70s crime novels is how lurid they can be, with incidental details that just drip with sleaze. Like the heroin supplier who likes to have sex with heavyset women who have mannish features, or the motel owner who jerks off over the nude corpse of a young woman…! Turner co-wrote three of the Mafia: Operation books for Lyle Kenyon Engel, each of them brimming with sleaze; he brings a bit of that here, but having read Scorpio I’d have to guess Turner’s cowriter on those books, Allan Nixon, was the one who must’ve been responsible for the good stuff.

Because honestly, Scorpio just sort of drags on and on. And like the Narc or Headhunters books, Scorpio is yet another cop protagonist who comes off like a minor character in his own novel; most of the text is given over to the sundry lowlifes who peddle heroin in LA, in particular the leader of the pack, a black-Hispanic named Jesus Martinez. A muscle-bound lothario with yellow eyes, Martinez is as cold-blooded as you can get. It gradually develops that he boffed both Madeline Stewart-Brooke and her teenaged daughter, having it all secretly photographed so he could later blackmail them.

Martinez did this for a big cash payoff, which he intends to use to buy in on the Mafia’s heroin business, promoting himself as like a district supervisor or somesuch. Meanwhile Scorpio just goes round and round, asking questions, reflecting on past cases. He doesn’t even pull his gun until the climax of the book, and even then he doesn’t kill anyone. Turner delivers a few sex scenes here and there, to make up I guess for the paucity of action, but even these lack the outrageous lurid quotient of his Mafia: Operation work. In truth, the whole thing’s just sort of listless.

As mentioned, the actual “A plot” only comes and goes, with Turner constantly stalling the momentum with digressions and detours. Anytime a character is introduced, no matter how minor he or she might be, we’ll get a few pages of background history about them. Again, exactly like you’d read in one of William Crawford’s books. But periodically Turner will return to the main plot, like when Scorpio’s footballer-turned-P.I. buddy Poularis is almost beaten to death, and later when Scorpio, right after having a face-to-face meeting with Martinez, loses his Jag to a carbomb, which instead blows up the mechanic who was trying to fix the car for him. 

Like a later listless cop novel, Hellfire, Scorpio emerges from its doldrums in the final stretch with a Hollywood-escque climax. Martinez, on the run, tracks down Inez, a gorgeous young woman who sings at his nightclub, and abducts her, the lovely lady having offered to blab about her boss’s nefarious doings. But Inez is staying with Mugsie, Scorpio’s gal. This makes the reader expect something bad is going to happen to Mugsie, but Martinez just knocks her out and runs away – strange, given how ruthless the guy’s been presented to us, killing off scads of people and even, in another backstory, a female narc, raping her and then murdering her before she climaxes.

Martinez absconds to the Lower East Side home in which he was born and there rapes Inez, discovering after the fact that the lady was a virgin. But then Martinez goes nuts; due to a childhood injury he got while skateboarding(?!), he periodically suffers migraines and blackouts, usually coming out of them in an altered mental state. So in the final pages he goes into this childlike mentality and is about to paint up Inez’s face, when Scorpio shows up; cue a bareknuckle brawl between the two, with Scorpio quickly losing his gun and having to resort to his fists and feet to bring the bigger man down.

And Scorpio’s a by-the-rules cop; instead of blowing the scumbag away, like the reader would want, he instead cuffs him and calls in the precinct. (Luckily Martinez does us the favor of doing away with himself.) The case successfully closed, Scorpio is presented with a replacement ’68 Jag, bought for him by Mugsie, Inez, Poularis, and even his eternally pissed-off chief, who just got back from vacation.

This gives the impression that our hero is being set up for more adventures in another installment, but this was not to be, and whether by accident or design this was the one and only apparance of Lt. Edd Scorpio. So I guess he must’ve successfully assassinated the unspeakable.

7 comments:

FreeLiverFree said...

Turner supposedly dismisses Page’s writing as “typical pulp stuff” without merit.---

Don't you love it when a bad writer dismisses a writer better than they are?

Stephen Mertz said...

Robert Turner was not a bad writer. He was a fine noir writer and author of Gold Medal originals, as well as TV scripts. His autobiography is an extremely interesting and well done look at the pulp writer's life of that era. I've read the book several times and don't recall anything about the Spider. Turner was one of those writers whom colleagues would consider a hardworking professional and snobs would call a hack. It sounds like at this late stage of his career, with this book, he was writing for a market he didn't understand. In fact, publishers like Pyramid and Dell were far too conservative to ever "get" what Pinnacle and Belmont-Tower were up to. Their attempts to tap into the hot action adventure market of the day are mostly duds while Bolan, the Destroyer, the Death Medrchant etc were flying off the spin racks.

FreeLiverFree said...

Sorry, I stand corrected.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Steve, thanks for the rundown on Turner. I read Scorpio before his autobio, which I practically ended up reading entirely in my failed attempt to track down the elusive "Spider" quote. He came off like a likable guy in it, and it was interesting to read about his work on Manhunt magazine and the early Gold Medal publications. Maybe you are right about Scorpio and he just didn't understand the market. Another possibility is that Pat Hawk got his info wrong and Scorpio really was written by William Crawford. The only Turner fiction I've read besides this was the two Mafia: Operation novels, and neither of them are as sluggishly-paced or convoluted as Scorpio.

Michael G said...

Lyle Kenyon seems to have tried just about every genre in the early to mid 70s before the Jakes breakout.

Joe, is there anywhere I can find a decent list of BCI produced titles. I have the Nick Carter article in Armchair Detective and some newspaper articles. But your site is the only one I can find that mentions BCI in any kind of depth.

Keep up the good work. Love the reviews.

Joe Kenney said...

Michael, thanks a lot for the comment. Unfortunately there's no such list, or at least none that I know of. The Armchair Detective article you mention, by Will Murray (as well as the uncut Engel interview Murray used to write that article, which appeared in Paperback Parade #2), is about all there is. I only have info on my blog because I spend way too much time researching this stuff -- usually in vain. (I'd still love to know who wrote the Engel-produced "Memoirs Of An Ex-Porno Queen!") And some of these BCI titles, in particular the crime paperbacks of the '70s, I only discovered were BCI after purchasing the books themselves, like "The Rapist" by Don Logan. But really, it would be great if Engel's son came out of seclusion and opened the BCI vaults...!

Joe Kenney said...

As an update on the Robert Turner vs. Norvell Page issue, I just got Robert Sampson's "Spider" book from InterLibrary Loan again, and I see why I couldn't find that elusive Turner quote in his autobio "Some Of My Best Friends Are Writers;" it turns out it's not even from that book! The Turner quote I was thinking of is actually from a letter he wrote Robert Sampson, dated June 8, 1977. Here is the quote from the book:

Robert Turner: It was probably '43, possibly '42, when I first worked as an ass't ed at PopPub.... Putting together Spider was one of my chores and I vaguely recall that the stories I edited were Page's.... I do also recall doing some heavy rewriting on the Spider "novels" because the style seemed to be old fashioned pulpy, too much action and too little emotional involvement.

Interestingly, Sampson seems to favor Turner's rewrites of Page's manuscripts, particularly The Spider and the Man From Hell, from June '43, which apparently was heavily rewritten by Turner.