Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Huntress

The Huntress, by Williams Forrest
No month stated, 1964  Fawcett Gold Medal

You won’t find anything about The Huntress online, but according to the back cover copy it’s about a young Jewish girl whose family was killed in the Holocaust and who becomes a secret agent for the US, her goal the tracking down and killing of Nazis. Well, that’s sort of what the novel is about.

This sounds like a pulp masterpiece, but my friends, Williams Forrest is determined to write a “real” novel. In fact The Huntress should’ve been published in hardcover and received a glowing review in The New York Times or somesuch. It should not have been published as a pulpy-looking paperback from Gold Medal with a cover blurb calling it a “violent novel.” About the only way you’d think The Huntress was violent is if you’d spent the past decade reading Proust. This is a meaty, “literary” novel that only has a pulpish plot. It’s more Don DeLillo than Don Pendleton.

And yet, when I started to read the book I couldn’t believe how great it was. I found myself actually being moved by the opening sequence, something that rarely happens for an emotionless bastard like me. Unfortunately, The Huntress keeps going, which proves to be its undoing. But those opening pages are something special. The novel itself occurs in 1964, but the first quarter or so takes place in ’45, at the very end of the war. OSS spook Matt Winford is overseeing the freeing of a German concentration camp, and Willaims capably – and quickly – details the horrors therein.

The emotional content comes up when Winford spots a group of kids, converging around a US officer who happens to be a rabbi. Winford sees one of the kids – a little girl, maybe four, with wild black hair and “the eyes of a tigress.” Before he knows it he’s picked her up and he’s holding her. She says one word, in Yiddish: “Revenge.” And then she breaks down into tears. The little girl is named Sheila Koenig and it will be learned that her family was killed by the Nazis – her mother indeed hid tiny Sheila in a cupboard before the Nazis killed her. Yet Sheila was rounded up anyway.

From here the novel sort of hopscotches to important moments in Sheila’s life. Due to Winford’s brief presence she has, unlike most other Jewish kids freed from the camps, gone to America, where she is raised by a family she doesn’t really love. Matt Winford is for all intents and purposes her foster father, though she never calls him such; they have kept in touch over the years and he visits her in Virginia often. Winford has also stayed in the intelligence world and now works for the CIA. This is something that Sheila, now in her teens, is very interested in. She has retained her cold exterior and seems to live for nothing more than revenge.

Sheila, Winford is slowly beginning to realize, wants to become a secret agent herself. When she learns from him one day that martial arts could help a woman defend herself against a man, she throws herself into the study of karate, with the outcome that she achieves the rank of 4th Dan, higher even than Winford. At length he agrees to her demands and puts in a word for her at the Agency. Starting off on clerical duties Sheila soon realizes she could help the CIA in a greater capacity: in particular, in helping bring down the espionage ring of a Communist spymaster who was formerly a Nazi – in fact, the very same Nazi who was behind the massacre of Sheila’s family.

The Nazi, Colonel Ludwig von Bohlen, went over to East Germany after the War; we are informed that, while America took all the “good” Germans, the Commie countries eagerly took the bad ones. (However the revelation of Operation Paperclip in the ‘80s proved that America itself took its share of Nazis after the war…) Anyway, von Bohlen is you’ll be surprised to know a complete sadist, a man we eventually learn who gets off on whipping young women to death, a la any true men’s adventure magazine pulp Nazi. Yet our capable author is less concerned with showing us any of this sordid stuff and instead just shoehorns it into lots of dialog.

For that’s mostly what The Huntress is: dialog. The DeLillo reference above wasn’t made in jest. This is a novel mostly comprised of various weird characters speaking exorbitantly and at great length about various things, expounding on their arcane and bizarre knowledge. The emotional impact of those first several pages is gradually eclipsed, to the point where the reader wonders if he will risk losing the plot if he, say, skims a few pages. It’s a shame, really, as initially I thought I’d discovered a forgotten masterpiece. As it is, I found The Huntress a trying read.

Anyway, von Bohlen’s scheme, per Winford, is that he picks up talented whores from a particular cathouse in Rome, takes them over to East Germany, brainwashes them to the Red cause, and then trains them in the finer arts of sex and seduction. From there they are shipped to the free world, in particular the UN, where they are tasked with targeting particular ambassadors and VIPs and whatnot. The women then steal all kinds of info from the VIPs in bed, secretly sending it back to East Germany. But von Bohlen is a cagey ex-Nazi and travels secretly, and Winford and the CIA don’t just want to nab him but to expose his list of corrupted UN officials.

Per her request, Sheila is sent over to Italy, with an elaborate cover story of a young whore who was recently killed. (In a complete bit of coincidence, we later learn that the girl Sheila is posing as was killed by von Bohlen himself, in one of his whipping frenzies, but he never knew the name of the girl he was whipping…?!) Here the novel loses its steam and we must settle in for the long haul as Sheila meets one windbag after another. Most guilty of all is the old yet regal madam of the whorehouse, who is prone to going on and on for paragraphs of exposition over several pages as she regales Sheila with tales of her wanton youth and informs Sheila that she envies her youth. 

Meanwhile we also cut over to von Bohlen, who travels to Italy under a false name and as expected takes quickly to Sheila – part of the madam’s job was to ensure von Bohlen would note her. And as for Sheila, she herself is segregated in her own room in the cathouse and is not up for sale; this is something we learn at more page expense that pisses off the real hookers in the establishment. But von Bohlen takes to Sheila and goes about courting her. Forrest doesn’t do much to capture von Bohlen; it would be nice to see what this once-rabid Nazi thinks of the 1960s, how he feels working for the Communists and how he views Italy in comparison to the Italy of the 1940s. Instead, von Bohlen is just a sadist who enjoys the freedom the East Germans give him, and he figures Sheila will be perfect for nabbing another randy UN official.

Matt Winford is also here, shadowing Sheila in Rome before she’s taken to East Germany. There are also a few Israeli agents here, ones who are seeking von Bohlen. One of them, a sabra named Chaim, meets Sheila and quickly deduces she’s a spy and Winford her handler. In their quick meet Forrest lays the groundwork for a growing love between the two, but it’s hard to buy and at any rate comes to zilch; Sheila and Chaim never meet again in the novel, though it ends as she’s about to see him again. But in their one meeting together Chaim, posing as a man who has heard of this mysterious girl in the cathouse, tries to rent her for the day, and Sheila, wondering who the hell this rakish young guy really is, agrees to go along, but there will be no sex.

Instead Chaim takes her to the home in which the real girl whose name Sheila is using was captured by the Nazis, her own parents killed by them…in another bizarre and underdeveloped bit of coincidence, the girl Sheila is posing as had an almost identical past as her own. But nothing comes of this sequence…indeed nothing much comes of any sequence in The Huntress. The whole thing really comes off like the author working out his admittedly-talented writing chops. Von Bohlen as expected takes Sheila to Berlin, and here the novel still doesn’t amount to much, Forrest trying to be sordid yet still “literary” as Sheila is inducted into the Commie brainwashing/sex training gambit of the East Germans.

This sequence too just goes on and on, complete with another former Nazi at one point getting up on stage before the new class of whores and regaling them with endless speechifying. Eventually the girls are tested in various lovemaking scenarious, testing out the control of their inner muscles and whatnot. Again, you can tell it’s all quite torrid for its day but Forrest treats it all with kid gloves; that being said, this is the first pre-‘70s pulp paperback I’ve encountered to use the word “vagina.” But again it is not used in a racy sense. Instead it’s yet more locuacious minor characters going on and on. And despite the fact that all this takes place in a friggin’ sex school, it’s all very unerortic…like the long sequence where Sheila is forced to clean the bathroom.

Things don’t really pick up until the final few pages. Von Bohlen takes Sheila from the school and flies with her to Canada, from which they’ll enter the US. Winford and Chaim secretly follow. Sheila thinks she is being set up on her new UN deal, but it looks like Von Bohlen might’ve uncovered her identity. Or has he? It’s left vague; instead, a world-famous politician shows up after Von Bohlen has drugged and tied up Sheila and they get ready to whip her to death. Perhaps this is just this particular VIP’s sadistic kink. At any rate Sheila is in a bad way, hanging by her hair, only able to take the weight off it by balancing on a wooden chair beneath her.

The helluva it is, Sheila has had contless opportunities to kill von Bohlen. You keep wondering why she doesn’t, only to remind yourself, “Oh yeah, she needs to uncover his UN scheme and bring him to justice, or something.” And yet, here in the homestretch…Sheila kills von Bohlen. And rather easily at that! She gets the two men in range of her lethal legs and lets ‘em have it, choking the life out of Von Bohlen with her thighs. And that’s that! The rather amateurish cover painting illustrates this final scene, of a victorious Sheila standing over her dead prey.

But like I wrote above, The Huntress really should not have been a Gold Medal paperback with such a pulpy cover. Even the title makes no sense. Sheila is not codenamed “The Huntress” and she is never referred to as such. She is a junior agent on her first assignment and she doesn’t “hunt” a single thing; she just sits around in an Italian whorehouse and then in Berlin she just sits around in a sex school. She is not an ass-kicking spy babe, despite the fact that Forrest early in the book goes to great pains to inform us how much of a karate expert she is. It isn’t rocket science, people, just slap a skintight black jumpsuit on her, codename her “The Huntress,” and send her shapely ass over to Europe to kill ex-Nazi scum! The story practically writes itself!

Instead, Williams Forrest is determined to write a “real” novel, none of that funny pulp business. One thing to make clear though is that Forrest is a great writer. This dude can spin a sentence, that’s for sure. And yet his very writing qualities are what, for me at least, gradually led to my frustration with The Huntress. It seemed as if the majority of the tale was word painting, though word painting of a high caliber. I just wanted something finally to happen, and grew bored with the windbag characters.   


Jeffrey Perren said...

Thanks for the thorough review. I've been on the fence about picking up this title, but your review put me into the 'buy and read eventually' category.

Bill Kelly said...

Great review and thank you.
Forrest also wrote three gothics for Gold Medal using the name Wilma Forrest.