Thursday, September 10, 2015

Meet Morocco Jones (Morocco Jones #1)


Meet Morocco Jones, by Jack Baynes
No month stated, 1957  Fawcett Crest Books

Starting off a four-volume series, Meet Morocco Jones is like a men’s adventure series ten years early. My guess is Fawcett wanted to tap in on the success of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books, but instead series protagonist Morocco Jones, while nominally a private investigator, comes off more like the sort of hero you’d encounter in the men’s adventure paperbacks of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  The book (and series) is even written in third-person, unlike the first-person of the Hammer novels.

Apparently “Jack Baynes” was a pseudonym used by someone named Bertram B. Fowler, but it doesn’t look like he ever published anything under his own name. And since “Jack Baynes” is such a damn cool name that’s how I’ll refer to him. His writing is good, not as hardboiled as you’d expect, more along the lines of something Lyle Kenyon Engel would’ve produced, with that firm command of craft, character, and plot. To be sure, the plot does get out of Baynes’s hands a bit (just like in many of those Engel productions, in fact), but the novel is a lot better than you’d expect, even with a bit of an unexpected social conscience when it comes to inner-city blacks.

Now, as for our hero, it’s hard not to picture ubuiquitous paperback cover model Steve Holland in the role. Described as a lanky but muscle-bound, craggy-faced stalwart of manhood, Morocco Jones is such a badass that the mere mention of his name is enough to make men piss themselves in terror. For the past five years Morocco was with “the top counterespionage unit in Europe,” where he took on “the Commies,” and he hates them almost as much as Richard Camellion hates them. Morocco served under General Weyland, a moustached bastard described as looking like he walked off the cover of a men’s magazine; their chief adversary was the mysterious Bardo, “the top Commie spy,” whose face has only been seen by one person.

In exposition-laden backstory, we learn that, on the unit’s last job, Bardo kidnapped a young woman and unit member Chris Shane went after her. After being tortured horribly Shane had his face changed and disappeared. Morocco saved the girl, and spirited her away with no one else on the unit learning who she was. After which Morocco, the General, and other unit member Brett Culver quit the spy game, moved to Chicago, and put their Cold War skills to work in a private eye venture. All this Morocco relays over breakfast to the lovely Llora Madigan, his sometimes-girlfriend who herself is a fellow spy, codenamed “The Countess.” I mean, this series prefigures so many ‘70s action series it isn’t even funny; Llora is basically The Baroness about two decades early.

She too is out of the spy game but Llora intimates that she came to Morroco’s penthouse apartment last night to see if he was aware of anything about to happen. Instead the two went straight to bed (true to the era the author is firmly in the fade-to-black mold when it comes to sex), and now as Llora’s about to reveal the purpose of her visit the two are interrupted by the entrance of Syndicate goons. Here we get our first taste of Morocco’s bad-assery as he dispenses of these guys with his bare hands. He has nothing but contempt for the Syndicate and figures he won’t even need to use his .45 on this latest caper.

Bardo is supposedly in town, trying to track down that woman who saw his face back in Europe. The General, who has a sort of antagonistic relationship with Morocco, informs him that Bardo has apparently made a deal with the Syndicate and something big is going down. Gradually we’ll learn that the Commies have been supplying the Syndicate with tons of heroin, the idea being to weaken the US with it. In exchange the Syndicate will provide Bardo with enforcers to help him take on the General’s agents while he tracks down the girl who saw his face.

Morocco really isn’t too sharp, but this is more so due to the demands of Baynes’s plotting. The lady who saw his face is Leni Grayson, married to a former reporter named Phil. Morocco heads on over to their place here in Chicago only to find that Leni is gone; he figures due to clues that none other than Llora Madigan has spirited her away for reasons of her own, and thus she’s safe. Instead of placing a distraught Phil under guard, Morocco instead orders the guy to eat a steak and have a few beers and then sends him home! How very surprising it is when later Phil finds some Syndicate thugs waiting for him at his place.

Our hero roams all over Chicago on this caper and the author seems to know the city well. In particular he writes about the dissolution the South Side was falling into at that time, and how the area had been abandoned by whites and taken over by blacks. What’s surprising is the sympathy the author shows for the blacks, how they are forced to share apartments at three times the rent the former white tenants paid, and the fact that they’re only here because the South Side offers the only jobs available to them. In fact this novel features an author who seems very sympathetic toward blacks, even if he does refer to them as “Negroes” and “the coloreds.”

In particular there’s Thurm, a tough enforcer for Elijah “Lije” Woodruff, the sort of black godfather of the South Side. Lije with his web of informants is privy to practically everything that goes on in the city and gives Morocco plenty of details on where Bardo and the Syndicate might be. Thurm, after getting his ass kicked by Morocco, becomes his BFF and throughout the novel will appear out of the woodowrk to give Morocco news or to offer his services. But really there’s not much help to give, as Morocco takes care of everyone with ease, usually with his fists. Not that the novel is filled with action, but there are plentiful fistfights and shootouts; however the violence is nil, with the author never dwelling on the gore.

Morocco operates on his own for the most part, occasionally meeting up with the General to trade info. Llora the Countess also pops up here and there, mostly to fret over Morocco and to spend the night with him. She’s apparently a kick-ass spy in her own right but she spends most of the novel off-page. A part Baynes doesn’t really explain is that Llora was hired by previously-MIA Chris Shane to get Leni Greyson, so he could use her to go around Chicago and find Bardo. Really the entire novel is comprised of Morocco looking for one person or another while taking on various Syndicate thugs. 

The plot gets muddier and muddier with dashed-off subplots that quickly fizzle, like when a pair of Mafia hitmen are heavily built up in the narrative, hired by the Syndicate to take out Morocco and the General, and are dispensed with just a few pages after being first mentioned. Baynes does at least keep the bullets and fists flying; Morocco at one point kills a dude by slamming his head through the railing of an iron fence. His killcount gives cause for a lot of deadpan dark humor; the Syndicate thugs are referred to so derogatorily throughout that some of the lines are a bit funny. Morocco and the General also exchange a lot of humorous banter.

But as mentioned the plot gets more and more bloated with a barrage of new characters introduced. While we start off expecting Bardo will be the villain of the piece, he doesn’t even appear until his outing in the final pages, and Morocco goes after one newly-introduced villain after another. First it’s Ardello, the top Syndicate man in Chicago, then it’s Ardello’s second in command. Then it’s the Mafia. Then it’s Bardo’s second in command. It’s almost like a video game as Morocco and crew advance from one level to the next, but the problem is the central plot just sort of evaporates. Even the whole heroin thing is muddied up as we learn that Bardo’s men have gotten greedy for it and want to steal it from the “top Commie” and sell it for themselves.

The surprise reveal of who Bardo really is won’t come as much of a surprise, but at least it doesn’t turn out to be Morocco’s old teammate Chris Shane, which I figured would be a given as soon as it was revealed the dude was missing and had gotten a new face. The novel ends with Morocco feeling crestfallen over the fact that his life will always be filled with blood, even if he is “retired.” It’s also implied that he’s about to become serious with Llora Madigan, the Countess, who by the way officially retires from the spy game at novel’s end.

Three more adventures followed, and while Meet Morocco Jones lost its way after a bit, it was still sufficiently entertaining – and such a precursor of the men’s adventure novels that were to follow – that I look forward to eventually reading them.

3 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I remember enjoying a couple of the books in this series many long years ago, including this one. That's all I remember about them, though.

Johny Malone said...

I always wanted to know about this character.

Marty McKee said...

Sounds more like Matt Helm than Mike Hammer, just from reading your description.