Thursday, September 24, 2015

Code Of Vengeance (Sand #8)

Code Of Vengeance, by Ennis Willie
No month stated, 1965  Merit Books

During my recent hardboiled pulp kick I’ve been seeing mention of Ennis Willie, an obscure author of the time who is finally getting some attention fifty years after his last book was published. Willie wrote many novels, most of them published by low-circulation sleaze imprint Merit Books, but he’s most known for his series of eight books featuring the character Sand.

Like Morocco Jones, Sand is a men’s adventure series several years early; in fact, it’s basically The Butcher in all but name. Sand too is a former Syndicate bigwig who quit the crime life and is now hunted by his former comrades. Also like the Butcher, Sand works for the good guys these days. This isn’t coincidence; apparently Willie was contacted in the early ‘70s to either write The Butcher or to continue writing Sand novels. But he declined the offer, having retired from the writing life in ’65, and instead recommended a friend named James Dockery for the gig. (All as revealed in 2007 on James Reasoner’s blog and in a comment James left on Marty McKee’s blog.*)

I’m pretty sure that Code Of Vengeance was not only the last Sand novel but also the last novel Willie ever published. Either way it’s the first Willie/Sand novel I’ve read, and I didn’t miss out on any continuity; there’s nothing in this novel that hinges on anything that occurred in a previous Sand installment. Practically everything you need to know is on the front and back covers: Evan Sand is “the only man to leave the Syndicate and live” and now he kicks ass wherever he thinks it needs kicking.

At 127 pages, Code Of Vengeance moves at a rapid clip. This is mostly due to Willie’s writing, which could aptly be described as “terse.” In fact it’s almost a little too terse. Hardly anything is described, from characters to settings, and after a bit you start to wish there was just a little fat. In a way the novel comes off like a staccato outline. This does create a sort of adrenal rush, but at the same time the writing is so good that you want more. Character descriptions are minimal; even the female characters aren’t much exploited, let alone the infrequent sex scenes. As others have noted, even though the Sand novels were packaged as sleaze, they are very, very tame in the adult shenanigans department, and not just by today’s standards.

Willie gets right to the action; just like in the later Butcher novels, Sand is attacked within the first few pages by some old Syndicate pals. Instead of the Butcher’s silenced P-38, Sand’s weapon of choice appears to be a .45 automatic. The thugs jump him on a dark street and Sand takes out one of them, with the memorable detail of the thug’s neck getting blown off by Sand’s dum-dum bullets. The two thugs were in the process of hauling along a young girl in a trenchoat; one of them shoots her before fleeing.

The girl dies in Sand’s arms, and here’s another Butcher prefigure because it’s a girl Sand once knew. Her name is Audrey Rittenhouse and just a few years ago, when Sand was still in the Syndicate, she was a teenager with the desire to become a gun moll and she threw herself unsuccessfully at Sand. Now she’s dead, and also nude beneath the trenchcoat, like in Kiss Me Deadly. Sand’s determined to track down Grapes Werder, the thug who shot her before fleeing, but he’s stonewalled by Captain Max Mohannah, basically the Pat Chambers to Sand’s Mike Hammer. 

Mohannah appears to be a recurring character; he’s aware of course of Sand’s background (apparently Sand is quite famous, even to the common man) and I guess lets Sand run amok, just so long as Sand is going after the bad guys. Another recurring character appears to be a reporter named Phil Harris who pops up occasionally and vaguely mentions a past adventure. Apparently all this takes place in Chicago, by the way; I don’t believe Willie states in Code Of Vengeance that this is all in the Windy City, but I’m pretty sure I read that the other Sand novels are set there, just like the Morocco Jones series.

Sand goes around the city, chasing leads and getting in the occasional fight with various thugs. Audrey Rittenhouse was from money, and her older sister, a cold fish of a knockout named Samantha, is clearly trying to brush the story under the carpet. Sand has a few run-ins with her and her boyfriend, smarmy Orville Howlin, and Willie plays up the chemistry, which plays out via barbs and banter. Sand is just as terse as Willie’s narrative and doles out several one-liners and put-downs, many of which leave Samantha gaping in outrage. Meanwhile more corpses begin showing up, like Grapes Werder, the man who killed Audrey. Now Sand is certain there’s more to the story, but meanwhile he’s getting laid, courtesy a redheaded stripper named Dixie.

Speaking of the sex scenes, this is what they’re like, from a later sequence where Sand and Samantha have their expected encounter:

She screamed in his ear and bit at his neck. She was a naked, passion-filled wanton under him, wriggling with a crazy sensuality that caught his nerves and tickled them like piano strings. 

The ripping sound in his ears was his shirt finally shredding under the wild digging of this she-animal’s sharp nails. They had clawed through the flesh and there should have been pain, he knew, but there was no time for pain. 

“Make me a woman!” she said in a half-scream that somehow didn’t get lost like most of the others. “Make me a woman!”

Then it started all over again, the rushing, the climbing, the reaching. A new mountain. The same mountain. A madly whirling pool of sensations that made no sense. Bulding, building and…

So as you can see, there is nothing very explicit here. It’s a wonder really why Willie published through such a smalltime imprint with such limited distribution; racier stuff was published by Gold Medal. But that’s how it was, and now the Sand novels are exceedingly scarce and overpriced, though Ramble House has reprinted a few of them in two recent anthologies, Sand’s War and Sand’s Game (neither of which include Code Of Vengeance, though). But you certainly get the feeling that these novels could’ve gotten more readers if they’d only been a little longer and had a better publisher.

Anyway the central plot, which turns out to be about a “baby racket,” is appropriately convoluted, with Sand always two steps behind as he comes upon corpse after corpse. Two of the more notable people he hunts are Tuck, the “homosexual” mentioned on the cover, a drag queen who appears to know what was really going on with Audrey Rittenhouse and the Chicago Syndicate, and Chenny Teenatta, kingpin of the Chicago mob and one of Sand’s old enemies. All these thugs are like those seen in The Butcher; maybe not as grotesque, but definitely oddball, with strange characteristics and idiosyncrasies. Chenny for example is known for his pristine white teeth.

But that “two steps behind” deal is what ultimately undermines Code Of Vengeance. Sand, despite being a badass of the first order, spends too much of the novel trying to figure out what’s going on and showing up after the fireworks are over. He spends more time fending off the advances of another teenaged wanton, this being Colleen Rittenhouse, Samantha’s sixteen-year-old sister whose incredible body is amply described whenever she appears, despite Sand’s stern refusal to touch her. 

Even worse, Sand would be up shit creek in the climax if it wasn’t for someone else – namely, the offhand comment Colleen makes late in the book that she plugged a certain character’s gun. But as it stands, Sand figures out who is behind the plot in a last-second reveal and, not having a gun, must try to evade him and make him waste his bullets. But the killer has a backup piece, the one Sand knows has been plugged, and it’s his goal to get the killer to shoot it. This is what happens, and thus Sand himself doesn’t even kill off the main villain – in fact, Sand doesn’t kill off any of the main characters or villains, as they’re each bumped off by the killer himself.

I wasn’t blown away by Code Of Vengeance but I did enjoy it, and I definitely intend to read more of Willie’s work. I don’t yet have those Ramble House anthologies (the original books are just too damn overpriced; I was lucky to find this one for under ten bucks), but I do have the non-Sand novel Vice Town, which I’ll read next.

*Stephen Mertz has also informed me that he covers the Sand/Butcher origins in his interview with Ennis Willie, which is featured in the anthology Sands Game.


Zwolf said...

Great review! And great score, finding this one for a reasonable price. The Ramble House books are definitely worth it. I'm still hoping for another volume. Willie seems to get "badass" down better than just about any writer, even giving Spillane and Dan J. Marlowe a run for their money (Marlowe's hardest stuff is back in print, too, as a two-fer - ).

Ron Clinton said...

Great to see Willie getting more exposure. I have both the Ramble House volumes you mention -- Sand’s War and Sand’s Game -- after seeing mention of him @ James Reasoner's and Ed Gorman's blog sites a long while back, but haven't been fortunate enough to find any books of his at reasonable prices at eBay and other usual my hope is every bit of exposure increases the likelihood that there'll be more reprints.

I do have to say that even within those two collections there is some unevenness among the novels, but his style and tone is always a treat.