Monday, May 16, 2016

Flight To Takla-Ma

Flight To Takla-Ma, by Tedd Thomey
October, 1961  Monarch Books

With the vibe of a very long men’s adventure magazine story, Flight To Takla-Ma is a compelling Cold War novel with action, intrique, some spicy stuff, and even an unexpected romance angle. Author Tedd Thomey penned several paperback originals and his style is very much in the men’s mag vein, though I don’t believe he ever wrote for those magazines. (Some of his books were excerpted as “true book bonuses,” though.)

If anything Thomey has a knack for unusual plotting. Flight To Takla-Ma concerns itself with the “secret missions” of a would-be astronaut in the Taklamakan desert of China, but really it turns into more of a prisoner of war tale. It’s how the protagonist, square-jawed he-man Al Riley, becomes a spy that displays Thomey’s unusual plotting; namely, Riley accidentally breaks the neck of a woman he just had sex with and is offered a secret spy mission as a way to salvage his Air Force career!

Riley is a major, in the astronaut program, and he’s based in Mercury Beach, Florida. He’s really on the second-run list and is mostly training in case one of the main astronauts drops out of the program. Riley is a hotshot pilot with a successful war record in Korea, but his hot temper has kept him from truly achieving his goals. That and his rakish charm with the ladies. When we meet him Riley is berating a ranking officer over a faulty helmet piece, even slamming the helmet over the poor bastard’s head. But what really gets Riley in trouble is when, later that day, he meets the “nymphomaniac” blonde wife of a new astronaut on the program. 

This is Fay Exler, a “leggy-pure-bred blonde,” who scopes Riley out while he changes into swim trunks on the beach. She makes her interest known posthaste, and Thomey capably brings to life her ample charms. Monarch Books was a spicy imprint for its day, thus the word “breasts” appears frequently in these opening chapters. And when Riley and Fay have sex on the beach the next night, after sharing a bottle of wine, the ensuing scene is slightly more risque than what you might read in say Gold Medal Books:

He drew her very close, feeling her wet breasts, tasting the salt water on his lips, thrusting his leg between hers. He lifted her into his arms and carried her with a rush of water and excitement up onto the beach. 

Placing her on the sand, he covered her body with his own. She was remarkable from the beginning, her movements vigorous and unselfish. They forgot everything. Physically they were perfectly matched, and from the moment she caught and joined his propelling rhythm, he knew he had found a woman who regarded this ritual with the same frank, hedonistic delight as he did – a calculated but abandoned pursuit of the ultimate in exquisite awareness. She was with him all the way, from the slowjoy-piercing take-off, through the steady breath-taking climb, as they drove higher and higher, plunging toward unimaginable heights of sensation, till, somewhere in outer space, their world blew wide-open in a jet explosion of total ecstasy.

So in other words they get along great. But Fay’s very drunk on the wine and when they drink another bottle she jumps in the ocean for some skinny dipping. She’s so drunk she doesn’t realize she’s lost control of herself and she nearly drowns in the ocean. Once Riley catches up with her she is freaking out, half drowned, and he tries to calm her down. When this doesn’t work he slaps her, then punches her, but in his own panic he’s broken her damn neck! Now he has to drive the dying girl to the nearest hospital, only to be told she’s dead, and then he sits there and waits for her husband to show so he can explain himself. Talk about embarrassing!

Riley’s kicked out of the astronaut program and moved back to Edwards Air Force base in California, serving again as a test pilot. In his frustration and self-loathing he breaks record after record. He’s approached by mysterious General McKnight, an old Army vet who asks Riley a bunch of intrusive questions. Turns out McKnight runs Twelve-Twelve, an intelligence agency so top secret most people haven’t heard of it. At length Riley is picked for a secret mission; McKnight won’t divulge any details about it, but he promises Riley that, if he succeeds, McKnight will get him back in the astronaut program.

Thomey races through Riley’s training in espionage; in addition to more precision flying maneuvers he’s also taught the rudiments of the Russian and Chinese languages and given lessons on encryption and etc. But Riley’s still a hothead and breaks out of camp five weeks in; he steals a car and gets to Las Vegas, a few hundred miles away, where he picks up a hot redhead and scores again, in another explicit-for-its-time sequence just a chapter or two after the last one:

As soon as he picked her up and carried her to the bed, she pressed her naked breasts against the skin of his chest. Her hands grasped his shoulders insistently, her nails digging deep into his flesh and then even deeper. Her hips began a wonderful rhythm against him. Her green eyes looked up at him boldly, full of desire and excitement, and then she very deliberately bit deeply into the muscle of his chest, her teeth sharp and demanding.

Whether the lady is a vampire is unstated, but Riley again has a good ol’ time before finally deciding to mosey on back to Edwards. When he arrives he finds that he’s not in trouble – McKnight expected this of him, and besides Riley’s too damn skilled in all regards, particularly flying. Rather, McKnight informs Riley that he’d better get ready to move out the next morning: Twelve-Twelve is heading to Pakistan. After a long flight in his F-121A – and Thomey is very good at aviation fiction, giving enough detail to make him sound knowledgeable about the subject to the layman – Riley is briefed.

He’s to fly to the nearby desert of Taklamakan, where the Russians have built a missile base called Takla-Ma. (Taklamakan by the way was also visited by Nick Carter in Operation Starvation.) Riley is the only person going on the mission, despite the several other pilots who flew here with him. He is to drop something – McKnight won’t divulge what – into a specific area in the camp. The place is guarded by Russian and Chinese troops (this being set in the days before the two countries had their falling out), not to mention MIG-25 fighter jets. The flight the next morning is a taut, suspenseful sequence, Riley flying at 500 mph just 50 feet off the ground.

But he misses his target due to a dusty whirlwind that obscures the marsh he’s supposed to drop the mystery object into. While trying to fly back over the spot Riley is shot down; while bailing from his jet he sees what appears to be a stone falling from it. When Riley wakes up, beaten up from the impact of his fall, he is a prisoner in Takla-Ma. We are only now 50 pages in the book, and here Flight To Takla-Ma will stay for the duration. As stated, it’s more of a prisoner-escaping-the-odds tale of survival rather than a piece of Cold War espionage action.

So in other words, this is sort of a pulp novelization of the real-world U-2 incident with Gary Powers, which took place in May, 1960. McKnight even sets Riley up with a U-2 escort for the first half of the flight to Takla-Ma, and later the Russians and Chinese inform Riley that it too has been shot down, over Russia, just like Powers was. However, Gary Powers is never referenced in the book – and it would be natural for Riley to compare his own plight with that of Powers – so either Thomey just didn’t want to so visibly show his hand, or perhaps he did write the book before the U-2 incident and it just took a very long time to get published.

Takla-Ma is filled with Russian and Chinese soldiers, but Riley only interacts with two of them. In charge of the Chinese is Colonel Lu Fie-tzu, aka “Colonel Lou,” an Intelligence chief who went to UCLA and speaks in perfect English. (“Howdy, fellow,” he greets Riley when our hero wakes up after the crash.) But Lu is really a sadist, we’ll eventually learn. In charge of the Russians, and the entire base, is Colonel Fedotov, an obese KGB man who is more interested in drinking and talking about Russian greatness. The first-page preview mentions the “inevitable Communist enchantress” who will try to sway Riley to the dark side, once the drugs and brainwashing don’t work: this is Judith, an Indian nurse who is “distinctly lovely” and “dainty, small-boned and small-breasted.”

The love angle develops between Riley and Judith, but Thomey doesn’t force it. Judith is against using drugs for evil and thus secretly saves Riley from the brain-melting drugs Lu wants to use on him. The Russian and Chinese keep drilling Riley on who his accomplice is here in the base, who he was trying to airdrop a message to. But Riley knows nothing and can reveal no info even under sodium pentathol. Gradually Riley will figure out that he dropped a transmitter, disguised as a stone, and he’ll even spot it lying on a pile of rubble not far from his prison cell. It will become his mission to get out there and retrieve it.

Thomey injects a few action scenes, despite the fact that Riley is confined to a small cell. He breaks free soon after capture, leading to a sequence where he bashes in the heads of a few guards and steels a jeep. But he is of course captured – there’s still about 80 pages to go – and it’s back to the grilling and the drugging. More focus is gradually placed on Riley and Judith’s growing love for one another. She is a delicate flower and has been abused by Lu, whom she fears. Her character is warm and loving and innocent – but not naïve – and Thomey successfully paints the picture that she is very different from the women in Riley’s past.

Riley eventually figures out that McKnight sent him here due to the upcoming launch of the experimental Lenin II rocket; the Twelve-Twelve contact here was to transmit the exact moment the test rocket was launched. Through Judith Riley learns that it’s a lady named Madame Lysenko, widow of the man who built the Lenin II. Once Riley manages to escape again he and Judith hide in Lysenko’s apartment while the Chinese and Russians run amok on the base, fighting each other in an open war. Here Riley and Judith consumate their newfound love, and given the romance angle Thomey treats it all a lot more poetically than the earlier encounters, with lines like, “This was excitement and desire far beyond body and flesh.”

It’s not an action-packed tale, and indeed the men’s mag vibe of the opening 50 pages is soon lost, but Flight To Takla-Ma does have a thrilling finale, with Riley and Judith trying to escape the war-ravaged base. Even Judith gets to blow someone away, and Thomey has a nice bit of character payoff here where Judith, freaking out and panicking during the escape, loses control of herself, and Riley has to forcibly calm her down. It’s not over-elaborated, but it is a good callback to the similar sequence with the panicking Fay Exler in the ocean. Only now Riley – thanks to being in love – is a “complete man,” and this time he’s able to calm the girl without breaking her neck(!). 

Overall I enjoyed Flight To Takla-Ma, though to tell the truth I wanted something more along the lines of the story promised by those first 50 pages…a story of a hard-ass pilot taking secret missions for a top-secret spy agency. Instead the story became more of a prisoner of war deal, going more so for suspense and, eventually, romance. But Thomey’s writing is polished and professional and it’s very impressive how he was able to deliver such a meaty tale in just 142 pages.