The Sharpshooter #12: Scarfaced Killer, by Bruno Rossi
February, 1975 Leisure Books
Paul Hofrichter, the man who gave us the abysmal Stiletto, returns to the Sharpshooter series with an installment that turns out to have been written as a volume of The Marksman but changed by editor Peter McCurtin into a Sharpshooter. Yet for once the copyediting is fairly good, with only a handful of slips in which Johnny Rock is mysteriously referred to as “Magellan.”
As Lynn Munroe points out in his awesome Peter McCurtin checklist, McCurtin employed a ghostwriter named George Harmon Smith to polish the occasional Sharpshooter or Marksman manuscript. I wonder if Scarfaced Killer was one of those manuscripts, as the early pages display a level of qualitity inconsistent with Hofrichter’s typically-clunky style. Whereas Hofrichter’s typical novels are filled with pedantic dialog and scant description, the opening of Scarfaced Killer is for the most part pretty good, with Johnny Rock heading into the small town of Boyle, Oklahoma, which has been subtly overtaken by Mafioso who want to control Boyle’s newly-discovered gold mines.
Another thing that makes me think McCurtin or Smith tinkered with the book is the phrase “Soon he would again taste Mafia blood,” which appears early on and reminds us of Johnny Rock’s mob-killing psychosis. The phrase “taste Mafia blood,” to my knowledge, only appeared in the three volumes of the series written by Len Levinson, and given that it appears here makes me think that either McCurtin liked the phrase and used it in his polishing of the manuscript, or perhaps Hofrichter had been given copies of Levinson’s three books as study material before writing his own. But anyway, gradually the polished feeling of the opening page is replaced by the clunkiness we expect from Hofrichter – the same sort of style he was still employing over a decade later, in the Roadblaster books.
But McCurtin (or one of his copyeditors) slips at times, missing the occasional “Magellan” in Hofrichter’s original manuscript and not changing it to “Rock.” However the reader gets the suspicion that this might’ve started life as a Marksman novel early on; when Rock checks into his hotel in Boyle, he gives the fake name of Phil Marsalla – ie Philip Magellan, the Marksman. This “subtle” joke clearly made more sense in Hofrichter’s original version, where it was Magellan. Curiously, a minor character in Scarfaced Killer is named “Emil Scaretta,” which is so similar to the Marksman house name of “Frank Scarpetta” that you wonder if this was yet another in-joke on Hofrichter’s part or if it was just an oversight. (At any rate, Scaretta’s accidentally referred to as “Scarpetta” on page 163.)
Anyway, as usual with this stuff, it doesn’t matter. Hofrichter’s Johnny Rock/Philip Magellan is such a cipher that it really could be either character; only minor details, very late in the novel, betray that the character we’ve been reading about started life as Magellan – namely, the tidbit that “Rock” once worked in a carnival. As all fans know, that’s Magellan’s background, not Johnny Rock’s. Also, this version of “Rock” is fond of carrying a “suitcase” around with him, in which he stores his arsenal; surely this is none other than the infamous “artillery case” Magellan lugs around with him in every volume of The Marksman written by Russell Smith.
Oh, and speaking of that suitcase – Scarfaced Killer is filled with typos, like a ludicrious amount of them. For the most part they’re the usual Belmont Tower/Leisure screwups, like “shair” instead of “chair.” But my friends, on page 180 we come across this humdinger: “…holding the handle of the heavy shitcase.” Yes, friends, someone actually wrote “shitcase” instead of “suitcase.” How this could possibly happen – let alone not be caught – will have to remain a mystery, but maybe it was the copyeditor or McCurtin or even Hofrichter himself letting us know what they thought about the book.
Anyway, Rock surveys Boyle and discovers that it’s practically the fief of a Mafia bigwig named Franklin Ditrinco, who rules the small town with a crooked mayor and the police in his employ. Only a hardscrabble group of salt-of-the earth types oppose Ditrinco’s complete takeover of the gold mines, and Rock finds out about them thanks to Carl Cortner, the town drunk. Leading the miners is Hank Belmann, Cortner’s son in law, and the man Rock gradually teams up with to take on Ditrinco’s goons and dirty cops. In particular Ditrinco retains a trio of wheelchair-bound killers, the Celebano brothers, who go around town on electric wheelchairs, toting shotguns. Their leader, sadistic Wendell, may be the “scarfaced killer” of the title and hyperbolic back cover copy, but probably isn’t – this is likely another indication of McCurtin once again coming up with a suitably “tough” title.
One thing that can be said of Hofrichter is that he doesn’t shy from the gory violence. While there isn’t even a hint of sex in the novel (the only woman in the book is an old lady who has maybe a line or two), there’s a ton of action and carnage, with Hofrichter, as in the inferior Stiletto, taking a sort of relish in describing how eyeballs pop out of skulls when a person’s gunned down or blown up. And Rock as ever is a straight-up killer in this one; his first victims being a pair of Ditrinco-paid lowlifes who occasionally rape runaways and then murder them. Rock catches them in the act of doing this, waits until they’ve raped and killed their latest prey(!!), and then guns them both down. This initiates his war of attrition against Ditrinco.
It’s constantly hammered home that Rock has been fighting the Mafia “for two years,” and practically everyone has heard of him. However in Hofrichter’s hands he’s kind of a moron. After his first hit Rock’s in his hotel room and falls for a Celebano brothers swindle; figuring the new guy in town is Rock, they send a flunkie up to his room, posing as a sandwich seller. Rock, who just killed two henchmen moments after rolling into town, buys himself a sandwich and doesn’t suspect a thing. It takes town drunk Carl Cortner to explain to him that it was a ruse to suss Rock out.
While he might be stupid, Rock is still sadistic – not to mention deadly to his friends. Learning that Ditrinco and the crooked mayor are hosting a dinner for various town notables, Rock steals a bunch of nitro, gets a job as a busboy at the restaurant, and then fills the coffee percolators with the nitro. After the tediously-overdescribed setting up of the explosives Rock escapes before the blast hits – and he wipes out around 70 men and women at the banquet. This leads to the first of many running battles in the novel, as Rock, armed with Uzi and grenades, takes on hordes of Mafia soldiers in the woods outside the restaurant.
Another long action sequence quickly follows, as poor ol’ Carl is gunned down by dirty cops who open fire on Rock’s hotel room, hitting the drunk instead. Rock blows ‘em all up with grenades, and then gets in another big firefight at Frank Belmann’s place. Oh, and speaking of which, that patented clunky Hofrichter dialog appears in an interminable chapter in which Belmann convinces his sickly wife to leave town until the action’s over; there are go-nowhere conversations throughout the novel, in particular the stuff with Ditrinco and his butler Scaretta, most of it recapping stuff we’ve already read.
The majority of the novel trades off between Ditrinco plotting to send killers after Rock and Belmann’s men and then Rock and Belmann fighting them off. Things really come to a head in the finale, in which Rock comes up with the “master plan” of serving himself up as bait in his hotel room while Belmann’s force capitalizes on this concentration of forces and heads for Ditrinco’s supposedly-defenseless home. Meanwhile, Ditrinco quickly deduces it’s a trap and Belmann and his little army is massacred in another running action sequence which sees more heads exploding and eyeballs popping out.
The Celebano brothers are the highlight here, riding specially-made heavy-tread electric wheelchairs with armored shields covering their bodies, shields which have slots to see through and slots for their shotgun barrels. (“In them, the brothers looked like creature[sp] from Mars.”) These three butcher Belmann’s army, killing them to a man on a battle that rages on the streets of Boyle, and for once the reader figures Johnny Rock might be up against some stiff competition. But the finale is a total copout; in just a page or two Rock takes the three brothers out, shooting under their armored plates and then blowing them up with dynamite.
More focus is placed on Rock’s knife fight with Emil Scaretta, who is a master with the stiletto; here we get the background detail that “Rock” grew up in a carnival and thus is a master of knife-throwing. As for Ditrinco, he does Rock the favor of offing himself – after which “There was no one else left to kill,” and that’s it for Rock’s war upon Boyle, a war which humorously enough has seen the death of everyone, mobster and innocent townsperson alike.
As mentioned, despite the clunky prose and the headscratching amount of run-on sentences, Hofrichter really doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the action and the gore, which makes Scarfaced Killer more entertaining than any of Hofrichter’s other novel’s I’ve yet read.