Thursday, February 16, 2017

Night Jump – Cuba

Night Jump – Cuba, by Poke Runyon
June, 1965  Pyramid Books

I’m very happy that I discovered Poke Runyon, an unfortunately-obscure author who should have gone on to fame as a writer of Hemingway-esque action novels. The other year I was in a used bookstore and came across Commando X, a 1967 Pyramid paperback graced with an awesome cover of a bikini’d babe in scuba gear coming out of the ocean. The author was Poke Runyon, and the novel was billed as a “Pyramid Espionage Thriller.” I of course bought it, and after a bit of research I found that Runyon had earlier published a separate, standalone novel through Pyramid: this one, Night Drop – Cuba, so I decided to read it first.

Billed as “a novel of action and intrigue,” “tense and tough up to the climax,” Night Jump – Cuba melds men’s adventure magazine-esque brawny action with the espionage vibe of a techno-thriller. In fact the book likely was excerpted in a men’s mag of the day. It concerns a small Special Forces unit that works for the CIA and which must find a missing “atomic drive” that was shot down over Cuba. But Runyon instills the novel with so much more – great heroes, great villains, and a clear grounding in the facts.

According to the brief bio in the opening of the book, Runyon himself was a Special Forces vet, aged 28, but it’s stipulated that he himself has had no involvement with the CIA. Sure!! According to a mini-bio of Runyon by Susan Wolfson on Goodreads, Runyon had “trained in the art of writing” and thus was perfectly suited to turn out this piece of Cold War action fiction. He also obviously performed work for the CIA as part of the Special Forces, particularly in Cuba. In other words, here is an author who has clearly been there, done that, and has the writing acumen to deliver a great piece of fiction about it.

And Runyon is a hellishly gifted author. He brings characters to life in just a few sentences and invests the book with unexpected flourishes of literary stuff. But this never gets in the way of the action – the violence is gory and the female characters are properly exploited, as is demanded by the pulp genre. I also wonder if book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel didn’t have this novel in mind when he later devised the Aquanauts series; there are many paralells, not the least of which is that the hero of Night Jump – Cuba is also codenamed “Tiger.”

This Tiger is Ed Malone, a “giant” of a man with balding hair, thick beard, and a cigar stub permanantly lodged in the corner of his mouth. At 38 he’s a Special Forces vet who served as a Ranger in Korea, where it’s tantalizingly mentioned that he was “victim of brainwashing” tactics courtesy the Reds when they briefly captured him. Now he’s the field leader of Queen Bee, a Special Forces unit that does black ops jobs for the CIA, based out of the Bahamas. Their area of operations is Cuba. Their main enemy is known as “The Fat Man,” the chief KGB operative in the area. In reality his name is Walter Oliver and he is an obese Englishman who raises venomous ants. He’s been nicknamed “Puppies” since childhood for drowning a litter of puppies, the memory of which still causes him much joy. In other words, one sick bastard.

Runyon develops a romantic subplot courtesy Duke and Toni Carlisle; Duke is the young radio operator on Malone’s four-man team (the other member is 40 year-old Cuban native Rico Santana; then there’s a barely-featured one named Badrena, who is a “dumb” Cuban), and Toni is Duke’s “fanatic liberal” hotstuff wife, who makes her living as a journalist. In torid backstory we learn that Malone and Toni had a brief fling before Toni and Duke were married – though they hate each other for their separate beliefs (Malone being firmly right-wing, as we’re informed most of the CIA was at that time), they have an “animal lust” for one another.

We get our first action scene within the first few chapters. Outfitted in an “Emerson 0-21 rebreather,” a directional finder, and other high-tech military gear, Malone and Duke swim deep beneath the coast of Cuba. They’re attacked by “hogs,” underwater sleds operated by enemy frogmen. Runyon well captures the dangers of deep diving – the rebreathers, despite being high-grade, are nearly poisonous at this depth – as Malone tries to evade his hunters. He goes on the offense, armed with nothing more than a knife, and we see first-hand why “Tiger” Malone is a legend in the Special Forces.

However Duke doesn’t make it. This tears Malone up – he goes on a bender with Santana, who has been mostly drunk since his brother was killed in the Bay of Pigs fiasco – and he puts off telling Toni. What Malone doesn’t know, but the reader soon learns, is that Toni not only has been planning to divorce Duke, but she has a bombshell up her sleeve – her son Jimmy is really Malone’s. She’s never stopped loving him and only fled to Duke when Malone spurned her three years ago, not willing to get in a relationship due to the fact that he’s a kick-ass living legend warrior and all. 

We get a Bond-esque sequence in which Puppies Valentine abducts Toni, brainwashes her with “hypno-drugs,” and uses her as bait to snare Malone, all so to grill him over mysterious radio broadcasts from the Escambray area of Cuba which call out “Tiger.” These dispatches are from Cuban revolutionaries who have found the atomic drive. Malone’s comrade Santana and a few other soldiers show up to save the day. More display of Malone’s bad-assery ensues when he kills one dude with a palm to the nose. One of Valentine’s men shows up in “infra-red goggles,” which I thought was cool.

Toni loses a finger courtesy Valentine, who tortures her to get Malone to talk; this serves to make the recently-widowed hottie super-eager for some more Malone loving, and Runyon provides a couple sexual scenes here that tread the line between explicitness and literary stuff. Oh, and Malone realizes he’s fallen in love and will need to quit the life to raise “little Jimmy,” aka the son he never even knew was his. Then Duke Carlisle, still alive after all, walks in and catches his wife and his best friend in mid-boink. Awkward!!

Unfortunately, Night Jump – Cuba loses its way when our team of four parachute into Cuba to destroy the atomic drive with thermite grenades. The buildup to this is cool, with a debriefing by a NASA scientist and Carlisle grim and likely suicidal after suffering this double betrayal – actually triple, given that he’s found out the kid isn’t even his! – but still on the mission due to his top radio skills. But while the first 75% of the novel is cool, rugged action-adventure spy intrigue with a men’s adventure feel, the last quarter stalls out in an overlong piece of military fiction.

Teaming up with the revolutionaries, our Malone endures several setbacks – the drive is radioactive and the loyal rebels who found it, including a young husband and wife with a child on the way, have discovered that they will be dead in a few days of radiation poisoning. This causes Santa to destroy all the thermite grenades in rage; now the two superpowers will be forced to fight over the drive, rather than letting it all play out via black ops. Then Carlisle tries to kill Malone, fails, then tries to kill himself, then realizes he’s an ass and joins up with the doomed radiation-dosed soldiers.

All the stuff with Valentine and the high-tech gear Malone uses is forgotten as we are given a running action sequence in which the four Queen Bee members, acting with different rebel groups, go up against Cuban soldiers, Russian soldiers, and artillery. There’s another men’s mag-esque moment where the Cubans unleash a regular “nymph squad,” but the female soldiers run from the firefight and are used more so as cannon-fodder. Along the way Malone almost bites it thanks to a few machine gun bullets in the leg, but is saved once again by Santana. 

Runyon sadly drops so much potential. Most importantly we aren’t given a fitting resolution between Valentine and Malone; while our hero is out gunning down anonymous Cuban and Russian soldiers, Valentine, seeing the cause is lost, makes his escape – and is hacked to pieces by rioting locals. Runyon has the novel ending with Castro’s end a surety, given that Santana has provoked an outright American-Russian war on Cuban soil, and now American soldiers are even parachuting in. The Russians are already beating a retreat. Even the romantic subplot with Malone and Toni is sadly unexplored, with Malone at the end certain he’ll quit to be with his family, and Toni basically saying, “No, thanks – just stay being a commando, ‘cause it’s what you like.”

Overall I really enjoyed Night Jump – Cuba, with the caveat that the first part was much more enjoyable than the last. It all just sort of lost its charm for me when the action moved to Cuba. As mentioned, Runyon turned out Commando X two years later, and that’s it. He also published some short stories and novellas in Argosy magazine (which I’d love to read), but gradually his writing interests turned to magick. Runyon you see is a Crowleyite magician, and his writing has focused on this for the past several years. Personally I’d love to see him turn out a novel about a magick-practicing special forces outfit…now that would be cool!!


Marty McKee said...

What a coincidence -- I just read COMMANDO X last month. Sounds like this book is very similar in tone, story, and writing style to COMMANDO X, which also fizzles just a bit close to the end. I'm really looking forward to your review of COMMANDO X! I had never heard of Poke Runyon, which I assumed to be a pseudonym, before running across COMMANDO X in a bookstore, like you did.

Stephen Mertz said...

If that is a pen name, it sure is a good one!

Joe Kenney said...

That is a coincidence, Marty! Commando X has a great cover for sure. I'm looking forward to reading it. And Stephen, I think that's his real name...but Poke Runyon would be a great pen name indeed, almost up there with my all-time favorite, Delano Stagg (a pseudonym Paul Eiden used on a pair of WWII paperbacks in the '50s).