Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Hitman #3: Nevada Nightmare

The Hitman #3: Nevada Nightmare, by Norman Winski
November, 1984  Pinnacle Books

Here ends The Hitman, with a third volume that unfortunately isn’t as crazed as the first two. Sure, the goofy moralizing and hilarious epithets are still in effect, but it’s all very subdued, as if Nomran Winski was running out of steam. Which is a shame, as Nevada Nightmare has a lot of potential: Dirk “The Hitman” Spencer goes up against a self-styled messiah who rules his followers with “sex yoga, mind molding, and unequivocal obedience to the will of Allah as inerpreted by Zarathustra.”

Forget about the “Allah” mention; there’s nothing remotely Muslim about the cult of Zarathurstra, a bearded hedonist who resides in a clifftop fortress of glass in the High Sierras. Despite being heavily set up, Zarathustra and his followers aren’t given much focus in the novel; rather, the majority of Nevada Nightmare is comprised of a practically endless sequence where a disguised Dirk visits Zarathustra’s commune, scopes it out, gets discovered, explodes some stuff as a distraction, and then makes his escape. No kidding, this entire sequence runs from pages 43 to 120. When you consider that the book is just over 160 pages, this doesn’t leave room for much else.

The novel opens with one of Dirk’s patented hits that go right over the line into overkill; still in his home base of Chicago, The Hitman has decided that a millionaire industrialist deserves to die. The man is poisoning the lakes and in social circles he mocks the “redneck scum” who have died as a result. It’s “eye for an eye” time, as Dirk sits in a bulldozer and waits for the guy’s armored limo to come by. Of course the millionaire has armed goons with him, but they prove short work for Dirk’s customary Uzi. As he crushes the car, we learn that Dirk gets no pleasure in prolonging the suffering of his victims, thus he quickly ends his prey’s misery with another quick burst of Uzi slugs. 

Meanwhile Tad, an old, alchoholic newspaper reporter who is friends with Dirk, is about to head to Nevada to get back his stepdaughter Melody, a Latin beauty who is “one of the top ten covergirls in the country.” A wildchild in her late 20s, Melody has gone from one religious fad to the next; currently she is associated with the mysterious Zarathustra. But Tad suspects foul play, as Melody has not appeared to be herself, and indeed just called Tad in a panic before the line was cut dead. Now Tad, who by the way suspects Dirk of being The Hitman, is about to go kick some ass. Then some burly dudes come by and ambush him…

When a letter appears in the newspaper, supposedly from Tad and praising the religion of Zarathustra (which Tad in the letter claims to have run off to join), Dirk becomes concerned. It’s off to Nevada in his high-tech arsenal of a helicopter, busty redheaded sometimes-girlfriend Valerie Jones with him (the TV reporter who appeared in previous volumes). After a quick perusal of Zarathustra’s fortress below, complete with armed guards in white patrolling it, Dirk gets down to business: inducting Valerie into the mile high club! Sadly this is the one and only sex scene in the novel, and it too does not reach the goofy heights of such scenes in previous books.

Valerie is in love with Dirk, and we know he loves her too, but he is unable to tell her; the novel is filled with Don Pendleton-esque ruminations on how Dirk can never love a woman, never put her in jeopardy, due to his savage life as The Hitman. (He does still call Valerie “Rose petals,” though, and inspired by Dirk I’ve decided to start calling my wife that, whether she likes it or not.) After this sex scene Valerie disappears, only phoning Dirk once or twice from Chicago to provide him some leads on Zarathustra. She is the only person who knows he’s The Hitman, thanks to the events of the first volume, but Winski works up an angle where by novel’s end hard-drinking Tad will also have figured it out. Unfortunately there were no more volumes to follow up on this.

Zarathustra’s mountaintop fortress-commune, Shangri-la, is open to tourists on the weekend. Dirk puts on a fake beard and goes undercover with a busful of other faithful. Little does the reader realize that this sequence will prove to be the majority of the novel! Viewing the commune Dirk sees white-suited guards, the so-called knights of Zarathustra, patrolling the grounds, while the faithful who live here are clearly mind-blown from various drugs. Dirk has only brought one pistol with him, and has to stash it on the bus when he sees a metal detector outside the entrance. When he sees that the gun will be discovered Dirk decides he must escape – after planting an explosive.

Here the reader learns how to jury-rig a napalm bomb. As mentioned it just goes on and on, Dirk touring the building while putting together the components of his explosive. Along the way he briefly gets to see Melody, the aforementioned covergirl. She is one of Zarathustra’s “brides” and in a clever sequence Dirk gets her to admit, to an entire room, that she is here against her will. She has never met Dirk, so she doesn’t know who he is, but his icy blue eyes melt her right on the spot and she’s game for “the big man” to save her and her stepfather. As for Dirk, when he sees Melody he becomes “the warrior of love,” possibly my favorite-ever goofy ephitet in a series filled with them. As for Melody’s own reaction to her first sight of Dirk:

The big man’s steady gaze was like a blowtorch burning into her, melting every cold corner of fear in her being. Melody felt she was in the presence of a man whose inner resources were bottomless, a man of heroic capabilities, someone who, once he fixed his mind on a goal, would move mountains and overcome armies. In seconds the electric impact of his presence on her was as reassuring as it was arousing. In fact under her flowing white robes she felt a familiar wetness.

Dirk doesn’t even make his first kill in Shrangi-la until around page 80. After setting off the napalm bomb in the cafeteria he tries to escape the snow-swept mountain. Winski’s background with Gold Eagle Books comes into play with lots of gun-porn about the various machine guns the knights of Zarathustra carry. While the action scenes aren’t as prevalent this time out, they do still retain some of the gore factor, with copious detail of brains blasting out and guts spilling. Dirk is also one of the few ‘80s men’s adventure protagonists who enjoys taunting his prey before killing them, like when he calls a pair of knights “dummies” before shooting blowing their brains out.

This overlong sequence doesn’t really bring Shangri-la much to life. Zarathustra only briefly appears, speaking to the tourists; Dirk instantly notes that this guy too is hopped up on goofballs. Anti-drug rhetoric runs rampant in Nevada Nightmare, and the cult’s drugging seems to be what most sets off Dirk’s killer instincts. During his escape he finds an “addict’s paradise” of drugs on the commune. However that “sex yoga” stuff gets zero mention and Winski doesn’t dwell much on the actual acolytes of the so-called messiah. It’s really all about Dirk building a bomb and then slowly escaping; he manages to hitch himself under the departing bus of tourists.

In the final pages Winski pulls a new plot out of his hat: turns out Zarathustra is funded by Don Cerrito, aka “The Snowman,” an old Mafioso who keeps his Sierras retreat icy cold as he thinks it’s like a cheap way to cryogenic life preservation or something. But anyway Cerrito is now unveiled as the “real” villain of the piece, with like 20 pages to go; Dirk gets the info from Valerie, whose brother on the Chicago force looked up various info. Meanwhile Dirk has found a secret burial site near the commune, filled with instigators killed by Zarathustra. Next he saves Melody, who appears on a local radio show; he blows away her knight escort and the two head for Shangri-la, hoping to find Tad still alive there. Oh, and Melody gives Dirk a blowjob during the drive. Why not?

But Winski has wasted so many pages with the tour-escape sequence that the climax is perfuntory at best. Indeed, Shangri-la is already under attack when Dirk and Melody get there – by “terrorists” under the employ of Don Cerrito. Thus Dirk, clad in the white suit of a knight with a white ski mask (so Melody won’t see his real face – meaning she just orally pleased a dude in a ski mask whose name she doesn’t know…) doesn’t even get to fight anymore knights as they’re all already dead. He evades the assaulting terrorist squad, Melody, who has grown up with guns, serving as his sidekick as she capably blows guys away with a submachine gun.

Winski has in fact wasted so much space that we don’t even get to see Dirk rescue Tad, let alone Melody’s reunion with him. Dirk blows away a few Mafia goons and a dying Zarathustra, shot apart by the Mafia, tells Dirk and Melody that Tad is down in the wine cellar boozing it up! Melody races off for him…and Dirk heads for Don Cerrito’s nearby villa, just leaving Melody there! (He figures she can fend for herself. What a hero!) The finale is an abrupt bit where Dirk drops a bunch of plastique on the mountain above the Don’s villa, causing an avalanche that destroys both it and Shangri-la.

And that’s that…Winski ends the tale here, with a triumphant Dirk looking down at the destruction he’s caused. He suspects that Tad – who he isn’t even sure has survived – will no doubt soon figure out that Dirk Spencer and The Hitman are one and the same. But that was it so far as the series went, so here we leave our “warrior of love,” hovering in his armored helicopter and resolving himself to the fact that, as The Hitman, he will continue to wage war against the forces of evil.

Finally, one can’t help but feel that this series would’ve survived longer if it hadn’t had such terrible covers. With this one it looks like the photographer snapped his shot before his models were even ready!


Zwolf said...

Those covers definitely did hurt sales, at least in my case. I know I passed over the first Hitman book at a (now defunct) used bookstore probably a dozen times before I'd pretty much exhausted everything else and decided, "Eh, okay, I'll blow a dollar fifty on this." Turned out it was well worth it, but, agh, the stupid covers.

(I'm also kicking myself 'cuz that same store had an Inquisitor novel and I passed that up for about 75 cents... and it goes for over $20 now and I think it's even the one volume that I'm still missing. Sometimes I'm dumb!)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Zwolf, good to hear from you as always. Don't kick yourself about passing up a book and then regretting it...we've all been there. About five years ago I was at a Half Price Bookstore and they had about 6 or so volumes of Len's "Rat Bastards," and for reasons that still escape me I passed them up. I sometimes think about calling the store to see if they still have them, but that would be like Homer calling the mall to see when Mr. T. was coming back.