The Chinese Mask, by Bill S. Ballinger
June, 1965 Signet Books
The Joaquin Hawks spy series continues with a second installment that has our “interpid agent” heading deep into China in a sort of Mission: Impossible-esque plot. Whereas the previous volume was sort of a jungle adventure, The Chinese Mask is almost a heist or caper, with Hawks tasked with breaking three Western scientists out of a prison near Peking and getting them to safety.
In the previous book it was made clear that Hawks, a tall, rangy, rakishly-handsome CIA agent, rarely went into “the Orient” on assignment. Now we’re informed that he is getting more missions there – indeed, the entire Joaquin Hawks series takes place in Asian locations – and thus he has increased his already-robust knowledge of languages. Now he’s nearly fluent in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. I have a hard time relating to Hawks. It would appear that between assignments he’s like the movie Bond, virile and popular with the ladies, yet when on a mission he’s a chameleon who can blend into any surrounding and speak any language. You get the impression that between missions Hawks is more likely to be found in a book-lined study, surrounded by his legion of cats.
At any rate he’s called away from his latest good time by Berke, his CIA handler in Los Angeles. Berke’s all riled up about Sensor, a “psycho gas” that can turn people into veritable zombies. Three top nerve gas specialists were working on Sensor in West Germany when they abruptly disappeared behind the Iron Curtain; intel has it that they were recently transferred from Moscow to Peking, where they are kept in a fortress-like prison. Hawks is to spring them or kill them if necessary so that the secrets of the nerve gas cannot be used by the Reds.
Thus Hawks becomes a Swiss jewelry dealer, speaking only French and pretending to be older and in worse shape than he really is, and flies to China. As before Ballinger works in a lot of travelogue and topical detail about China, with characters often relating arcane info via expository dialog. In other words one can tell where Ballinger was certainly influenced by Ian Fleming. However one big difference I’ve noticed about these Paperback Bonds of the ‘60s is that none of them have the personality of the real thing; they are all for the most part ciphers, whereas James Bond lives on the page.
Rather than focus on character, the Paperback Bonds are more about the plot; for example Joaquin Hawks is presented to us as the hero, and he is given a mission, and we read as he pursues that mission at the cost of all else. There are no perodic asides or ruminations about this or that. We do get a bit more detail on Hawks’s past, though, courtesy an arbitrary dream/flashback where he remembers an incident in his youth on the “Lapwai Reservation.” Here it’s noted that Hawks’s father, William, was apparently a tribal leader of the Nez Perce Indians, and instilled in Hawks all sorts of arcane Indian lore. But that’s about it.
After losing Fung, his China-appointed “little yellow shadow,” Hawks escapes into Peking and hides with his Berke-appointed contact, a Russian circus performer named Vassili Vazov, who wants to defect but must grant the American government a favor first. As expected, Vazov has a hot young blonde who lives with him – his neice, Laryssa – who is all-too-eager to hop in bed with studly Hawks. But Ballinger leaves all such naughtiness off-page; we’re only informed Laryssa is insatiable (as all hot ‘60s spy-babes are). Vazov is an old drunk given to sad-sack stories, and in his own minor way brings to mind some of Fleming’s supporting characters. So too does Neih, a Tong member who also helps out Hawks; our hero has brought along real diamonds to hire the Chinese underworld into helping him fight the Communist government it hates.
Now disguised as a Mongol, Hawks stays with Vazov and Laryssa and puts together his plan to free the three scientists. This he does with Neih, cornering the car that escorts the three on their daily ride from the prison to a laboratory; Hawks uses a tranquilizer gun on the guards and driver. Now the book takes on a Mission: Impossible feel. Hawks deems that the only way to get the three scientists across China is to pose as a Russian circus troupe! Given that Vazov is already a bear-handler and Laryssa a wire-walker, Hawks decides to pose as a knife thrower and tries to flesh out whatever skills the scientists have – ie juggling, etc. But they need another girl, so Neih brings in the gorgeous young Meng, who is a Shan “slave” of the tong – a willing slave, at that.
When none other than Fung shows up as the Government rep who will escort the circus across the country, Hawks knocks him out and decides to keep him tranquilized and comatose, posing as the “freak” Vazov’s old circus troupe once featured. Perhaps this is where the title comes into play, as they deem a mask will be necessary for Fung, as the troupe is supposed to be from Russia. At length a “mourning hood” is decided on, dyed red, with a green turban on top, with the story being that Fung is a Moslem who has made his pilgrimage to Mecca and has not moved since. Meanwhile Neih will pose as the real Fung.
We get the entire circus routine in detail, from Vazov boxing with his bear (which has become irritable and prone to violence in its old age) to Hawks throwing knives. The scientists juggle and play marching songs on harmonicas. It sort of goes on for a while. But at least it works, and the troupe moves on, everyone becoming more confident. But on the last performance complications ensue, leading us into some long-awaited action. After making a break for it to their escape vessel on the coast, our heroes realize that poor little Meng was left behind.
Hawks and Neih head back into town, which is covered with Security Police. Hawks here employs that belt buckle-gun of his, the sole Bond-esque gadget he uses, to kill a guard. He and Neih scout out the government building where Meng is kept, and given the amount of armed soldiers there, Hawks deems there’s only one option: to unleash mean old Ivan the Bear! In a climax that could come out of a men’s adventure magazine of the day, Hawks and Neih slam their truck into the place, let Ivan loose, and gun down what few soldiers the animal doesn’t behead or eviscerate. After a boat chase at sea that comes off as anticlimactic given the preceeding bear attack, our heroes make it to safety – and Ballinger ends his tale.
The curious thing about The Chinese Mask is how dissimilar it is from typical spy fiction. As mentioned it’s more of a caper. Given that Ballinger was a hardboiled writer and published a few heist novels, I’m wondering if he just recycled an old or unused plot. It would be easy to believe that The Chinese Mask started life as a hardboiled heist yarn set in the US in which the protagonists, after pulling a job, had to disguise themselves as circus performers for their escape; all Ballinger would’ve had to do was change the locale and the nationality of a few of the characters.
But it must be said that it’s still an enjoyable book – Ballinger is a fine writer and I was really caught up in the plot. This is a good series.