Monday, November 28, 2016

Super Cop Joe Blaze #3: The Thrill Killers


Super Cop Joe Blaze #3: The Thrill Killers, by Robert Novak
August, 1974  Belmont-Tower Books

The Super Cop Joe Blaze series ends with an installment courtesy the one and only Len Levinson. When I met with Len back in June, he didn’t seem to recall this book; he thought I was referring to his Ryker novel, The Terrorists. Later on he recalled it, and was nice enough to do a writeup with his current thoughts on the novel (below), but I have to say I really enjoyed The Thrill Killers, which offers everything one could want in a piece of tough cop pulp fiction.

Joe Blaze, unsurprisingly, is basically a Ryker clone, and Len’s version of the character is the same as his version of Ryker. He’s a tough cop, gets in a lot of scrapes, doesn’t like it when people run their mouths about “dirty cops.” He even has an ex-wife, same as Len’s version of Ryker. But technically this is Joe Blaze, who already had two previous “adventures” courtesy some unknown author(s). I’ve only read the second one, #2: The Concrete Cage, and in that one Blaze was just a regular cop, not prone to any of the outrageous sentiments of Nelson De Mille’s original version of Ryker. At any rate, per Len’s comments below, The Thrill Killers likely started as a Ryker novel, before editor Peter McCurtin had Len change it to a Joe Blaze.

Len ignores the title character of the previous two volumes and makes Joe Blaze more of a supercop; he carries a Browning 9mm and, while he uses his wits in his role as a homicide detective, he’s still prone to getting into shootouts, brawls, and the pants of eager women. What I found interesting was that Len was pretty left-wing in his views when he wrote this novel, but there’s no anti-cop sentiment to The Thrill Killers. Blaze is the hero, straight up, and in addition to the titular criminals he must also contend with various armed thugs, cop-haters, the corrupt local government, and liberal lawyers. 

This one’s more of a police procedural than The Terrorists, with Blaze using his detective smarts to collar a pair of rapist-murderers, but Len keeps things moving with arbitrary action and sex scenes. Which is to say, The Thrill Killers retains the spirit of the Dirty Harry movies and doesn’t become a slow-moving procedural like other Leisure/BT cop thrillers, ie The Slasher.

The titular villains are a pair of creeps who, just for kicks, abduct a pretty young nurse off the streets of Manhattan, drug her, rape her, and then slash her throat. Len doesn’t tell us their identities, leaving the reader to discover who they are when Blaze himself does. Speaking of whom, Len provides Blaze with an action intro as our hero guns down a perp who happens to be in bed with a woman. This is just the first of many “did you have to kill him, Blaze??” moments between Blaze and his boss, Lt. Jenkins, who to Len’s credit isn’t the “stupid chief” common in most tough cop yarns.

Blaze lives in an apartment on the East River which provides a view of Brooklyn (“Why would anyone want to look at Brooklyn?” asks a floozy Blaze picks up later on). His ex-wife Amy left him six years ago, incapable of dealing with being married to a cop. One can see why, as Blaze stays in action throughout; posthaste he’s handling a holdup in the Bowery, where a cop has been shot and a bunch of bums are being held hostage. Blaze talks the Commisioner no less into a plan in which Blaze will hide in the trunk of the car the robbers demand, and the Commissioner gives Blaze his .45!

Len even gives Blaze is own Dirty Harry-esque dialog; when Blaze guns down the two robbers, after he’s promised them he won’t shoot them, he sneers, “You gave up too late, punk,” before blowing the last one away. Meanwhile Blaze is handed the thrill killer case, and another nurse has been snatched off the street, raped, and killed. Len handles these scenes so that you feel very badly for the unfortunate women, and while the sequences are certainly lurid they aren’t sleazy. That being said Blaze has two sexual adventures in the novel, and these parts are a bit more graphic, but nothing compared to Len’s outright sleaze novels, ie Where The Action Is.

While researching suspects Blaze bumps into would-be muggers and even hippie terrorists bomb his precinct, this apparently being a common occurrence, not to mention recalling the plot of The Terrorists. While out for a beer with Lt. Jenkins Blaze even goes to the trouble of beating the shit out of a loudmouth drunk who bitches about the police – while Jenkins meanwhile frets that one day Blaze is “going to go too far.”

Probably the best sequence in the novel concerns a coke-sniffing go-go dancer at a topless bar; while just a few pages long, this scene is both reminiscent of and superior to the final quarter of The Lonely Lady. Chosen as the latest target of the thrill killers, the coke-soaring babe manages to turn the tables on them, given that she walks the dangerous streets of New York with a hidden .22. She ends up killing one of the sadists and winging the other in the leg, but for her troubles she herself is slashed in the stomach and sent to the emergency ward.

By this point Blaze has already determined that the thrill killers are a pair of young interns who were notorious for getting in trouble in medical school and who even attended classes with the two murdered nurses. When the dead one proves to be one of Blaze’s suspects, he heads to the posh home of the other with a warrant…and ends up arresting the guy’s father, too, after beating him up. But thanks to a shady, Mafia-aligned lawyer, the killer, Stevens, gets off scot free during the trial four months later.

Len takes us into the homestretch with more action: turns out the mobster had his Mafia pals kidnap the child of one of the jurors, ensuring her duplicity. Blaze dispenses justice in his own brutal way, then leads an assault on a Queens bar where the kid’s being held. But given that throughout he’s had no evidence, the DA refuses another trial. So The Thrill Killers ends with Blaze pulling his own abduction – tossing young Stevens into his car and driving him to his place of execution, where he’s given a sendoff inspired by his own murders (only minus the rape part, of course). Here Len ends the novel, on a bleak but fulfilling image of justice bloodily served.

Well anyway, I really enjoyed this one. Too bad this and The Terrorists were the only two cop thrillers Len wrote for Leisure/BT. Here are his current thoughts on the novel:

All my Belmont-Tower books began with an informal discussion with either Peter McCurtin or Milburn Smith at BT’s editorial offices at Park Avenue South and 33rd Street in midtown Manhattan. After I delivered a new completed manuscript to one or the other, I sat beside his desk and received my next assignment.

THE THRILL KILLERS followed this pattern. I sat beside Peter’s desk and he asked me to write a novel for one of their cop series, don’t remember the name now 40 years later because the name was changed as explained below. Peter either gave me one or more books in the series or just described it to me, I don’t remember. 

After the meeting I walked home to my pad on West 55th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, wondering along the way what the plot would be. There were so many possibilities. 

Around that time I’d done some reading about the sensational Leopold-Loeb murder case in Chicago during the 1920s. Two young college students at the University of Chicago named Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb decided that they were Nietzsche-style supermen beyond good and evil, and plotted the perfect murder to prove their thesis. So they killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks but weren’t as superior as they’d thought because soon they were arrested and went to trial, defended by the legendary Clarence Darrow who argued not for their innocence, because the evidence was overwhelming against them, but Darrow successfully saved them from the death penalty. 

The Leopold-Loeb murder definitely influenced the plot of THE THRILL KILLERS. My detective’s character profile followed the guidelines of what Peter told me in his office, a real badass cop obsessed with justice and who couldn’t care less about administrative procedures and laws that seem more concerned with protecting criminals than catching, prosecuting and punishing them. The detective is not above administering the death penalty himself to murderers, often using their own methods against them. 

After working on the novel for several days, I received a call from Peter. He said something like, “We’re spinning off a new cop series about a Detective named Joe Blaze. So change the detective’s name to Joe Blaze.” 

I replied, “But his character and personality are based on (the name of the detective in the series I had been working on).” 

Peter said, “Don’t worry about that. Just change his name to Joe Blaze and keep on going.” 

(I wrote a fictionalized version of this discussion with Peter into my semi-autobiographical novel about an action-adventure writer THE LAST BUFFOON by Leonard Jordan, because it was one of the stranger experiences of my strange so-called literary career.) 

I read THE THRILL KILLERS yesterday for the first time in 40 years. I had forgotten it almost completely and as usual when reading one of my old books, it seemed to have been written by someone else. 

At the risk of sounding immodest, I thought the book was pretty good mainly because narrative tension held steady all the way through and Detective Joe Blaze was a believable character, his anger about crime reflecting my own anger as resident of Manhattan during the high crime era before Rudy Giuliani became Mayor and Bill Bratton became Commissioner of Police. 

The novel presents a brutal view of the world which reflected what I read daily in the New York newspapers and in true crime novels. Murderers by definition don’t care about laws or rules of civility. They have monstrous minds and some are sadistic like the murderers in THE THRILL KILLERS. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all loved each other or at least treated each other respectfully? But we don’t, the human race never has, and this justifiably cynical viewpoint was the philosophical foundation for the novel. 

New York City crime is increasing again according to news reports. Where is Joe Blaze now that we really need him again?

1 comment:

Drew Salzen said...

Great to see Len commenting again. One of the best writers of paperbacks in that period for me, and The Last Buffoon is simply the best book about being a paperback writer, period. I say this as a latter day paperbacker - different era, different country, but surprising how little changes...

Viva Len!