Thursday, April 6, 2017

John Eagle Expeditor #14: Silverskull

John Eagle Expeditor #14: Silverskull, by Paul Edwards
December, 1975  Pyramid Books

I hope you’ll all shed a tear with me – I’ve now come to the final volume of my all-time favorite men’s adventure series, John Eagle Expeditor. I can’t believe it’s taken me nearly seven years to read these 14 books, particularly when you consider that the entire series was published within the span of three years! But to tell the truth I just didn’t want the series to end. I like it so much I even lobbied to name my son “John Eagle Kenney,” but I was quickly shot down.

Manning Lee Stokes wrote this final volume, which is fitting, given that he also wrote the first volume. But anyone hoping for a fitting conclusion to the Expeditor saga will be disappointed. Sadly, Silverskull could almost be an installment of practically any other series Stokes worked on. For, as he did in his previous entry The Green Goddess, Stokes turns in an installment lacking the science fiction-tinged adventure pulp of the earliest volmes, coming off more like a slow-boil crime-thriller. In fact, there are trace elements that make me wonder if it started life as a manuscript for another Stokes series, The Aquanauts.

For something weird happened with Stokes on John Eagle Expeditor. He turned in the first and the second volumes, which established the series formula that would last for the next several books: hero John Eagle, equipped with his high-tech gear and his “Apache cunning” (tempered of course by his white heritage, let’s not forget), would venture deep into some exotic locale and blow up an enemy installation. But with the fifth volume, Stokes dispensed with this formula and turned in a lurid thriller that had little in common with his first two books; despite which, Valley Of Vultures was still one of the best volumes in the series.

Then Stokes disappeared for two years, and the series was in the hands of Robert Lory and Paul Eiden, who for the most part stuck with the formula Stokes had devised in Needles of Death (a formula which more than likely was the work of series creator Lyle Kenyon Engel). But when Stokes returned for the 12th volume, The Green Goddess, it was as if he’d forgotten what the Expeditor series was even about. That one was another lurid thriller, but it was completely lacking any of the standard elements of the series; whereas Eagle at least donned his “plastic suit” (if only for a moment) in Valley Of Vulures, in The Green Goddess none of Eagle’s fancy bags of tricks made an appearance or were even mentioned. As I wrote in my long-winded review, it was almost as if Stokes had forgotten about all of it.

In fact, it’s now occurred to me that The Green Goddess and Silverskull were more along the lines of the slooow-moving thrillers Stokes was writing for The Aquanauts. It’s possible that both these books started life as installments of that series, which was cancelled in 1974 – one compelling indication is that Silverskull is stated as taking place in late June, 1974.

Len Levinson once told me it took “about a year” to see his series manuscripts appear as paperbacks in the ‘70s, so this could just be the case here, that Stokes wrote the book around June of ‘74 and it wasn’t pulished until a year and a half later. But another compelling clue is that the titular villain of Silverskull has his own submarine. As noted below, this submarine is excessively built up before being dropped abruptly, so could it be possible that Stokes’s original vision was to have this submarine engage in combat with Aquanauts hero Tiger Shark’s KRAB?

It could also be that Stokes was just in burnout and was churning out scripts to meet deadlines, with little thought to any grand design. By this point Stokes had turned in many, many books for Lyle Kenyon Engel, having begun his worker-for-hire writing duties for him a decade before, with The Eyes Of The Tiger. I wonder if Silverskull was the last novel Stokes wrote, as he died in January of 1976. In Will Murray’s 1981 interview with Engel, published uncut in Paperback Parade #2 (1986), Engel makes the tantalizing comment, “Manning is dead you know, and he was one of the greatest writers I ever had. It’s just a shame he died when he did because we were both on the track of something very very big when he died.” I’d love to know what this was, but unless Will Murray happened to write it down, I guess no one will ever know.

As for Silverskull, it unfortunately sticks to the lurid mystery vibe of The Aquanauts and The Green Goddess, with none of the cool stuff I so love about John Eagle Expeditor – other, that is, than a very late appearance of Eagle’s “plastic suit” and “gas gun.” Otherwise the book could almost pass for one of Stokes’s earlier Killmaster novels, only a lot more bloated and slower-paced. At 191 pages of small, dense print, Silverskull crawls along, and sadly is one of my least favorite books in the Expeditor series. Another thought: perhaps Engel felt this way, too, and the book was really written earlier (ie June of ’74), only held back from the publishing schedule for reasons of quality. 

Despite the padding and the lack of action, Stokes as ever invests himself in the writing, no matter how menial or tedious the events transpiring are. He also again busts out his Oxford Dictionary, delivering a brace of ten-dollar words you won’t often encounter in the men’s adventure genre. But the thing with Stokes is, these fancy-pants words are so naturally employed that you know without a doubt that Manning Lee Stokes was a well-read, intelligent guy. He just suffered a bit when it came to gripping plots; his books are more akin to sprawling affairs in which a central event is built up and up and up to the breaking point, and then everything quickly and anticlimactically comes to a close.

The villain of the piece, Silverskull, is a Flemingesque creation if ever there was one: Sir Rodney Hamilton, 51, a British billionaire with a fringe of red hair and a “polished silver plate” that is “the top of his skull.” As a racer in his youth, Sir Rodney suffered a serious crash which shaved off the top of his skull; it was replaced with this “silver tonsure,” which he polishes every night. Sir Rodney’s fortunes are slipping, and as the novel opens he has hit upon a scheme to become richer than ever: to kidnap the no-good son of Carlos de Ojeda, oil minister of Venezuela, and force Ojeda into giving Sir Rodney the controlling interests in a new oil field deep in the jungle (or something).

Stokes is never the best when it comes to main villains, so I was happy that here for once he gave us a memorable one – I mean the guy is the closest this series has ever come to a Goldfinger. But after getting a merciless stooge to kidnap de Ojeda’s twentysomething slacker kid (and kill all the witnesses), Sir Rodney proceeds to…fret over his plan, and meanwhile masturbate to X-rated fantasies of his mega-hot babe of a daughter, Jennifer, who is 22 and an infamous jet-setting nympho. Sir Rodney’s lust for his daughter is overly exploited by Stokes, leading to some intentionally humorous lines, like, “[Sir Rodney] thought a father was not supposed to notice his daughter’s breasts even when they were swinging ripe and full a few inches away.”

But ultimately this is just another go-nowhere digression on Stokes’s part; Jennifer and Sir Rodney don’t even have a face-to-face meeting in the entire novel, and all this incestual stuff is here so Stokes can indulge in sleaze. I’m a lover of sleaze, but not when we’re talking about a few pages of a silver-skulled guy jerking off at the thought of his daughter. And sadly this is the most XXX-rated scene in the book; even when Eagle has his mandatory sex-action, later in the novel (with Jennifer, naturally), it’s actually given less focus, over and done with in the span of a paragraph.

Eagle is called in to Venezuela to meet with old Simon de Ojeda, all the while wondering why he’s been handed this assignment. This is yet another Stokes novel in which the protagonist puzzles over why he was given his mission from first page to last, and you can’t blame Eagle – the assignment has nothing to do with the Expeditor setup. Stokes has it that Mr. Merlin, Eagle’s wheelchair-bound boss, owes an old colleague of de Ojeda’s a favor, one that Mr. Merlin has owed since he was a young man. Otherwise there’s no reason at all for Merlin’s top Expeditor to head to Venezuela to look into a kidnapping case.

Further proof that Stokes has forgotten what he himself wrote for this series is proven later in the book, when John Eagle phones Merlin, back in his underground labrynth in Hawaii, and gives him a “sitrep” on the action. Stokes just has the two speaking to each other plainly, clearly having forgotten that Eagle has no idea who Mr. Merlin is (Merlin’s true identity is kept even from the readers).

More importantly, Eagle has never heard Merlin’s real voice; previous books have stressed that Merlin, who gives Eagle his assignments over an intercom, electronically disguises his voice when he speaks to his Expeditor. And yet here Eagle acts like he’s quite familiar with Merlin – even knowing that he smokes cigars, when recall the two have never been in the same room. This could be more indication that Silverskull started life as another series book…the Eagle-Merlin relationship here being similar to the Nick Carter-Hawk relationship of Stokes’s Killmaster novels or even the Tiger Shark-Admiral Coffin relationship of The Aquanauts.

The book’s first half is very slow, very much in the suspense mode, as Eagle monitors the situation from de Ojeda’s palatial villa. Supposedly the man’s son is being held captive by a jungle guerrilla named the Wild Dog, and there’s a part early on where Eagle captures one of these men and tortures him (off-page) for info. But Eagle, that “assassin extraordinaire” (as he was dubbed on the back cover of some of the earlier volumes), doesn’t even kill anyone until page 132. He spends most of the novel hitting the buffet in de Ojeda’s villain, smoking a “rare cigarette,” and fretting over how the assignment is getting out of control.

Rather it’s all like some slow-boil mystery as Eagle gradually ascertains that Sir Rodney “Silverskull” Hamilton is behind the de Ojeda kidnapping, and that it has something to do with oil fields. Eagle, again sans any of his fancy gadgets or gear, poses as de Ojeda’s assistant and tries to set up a trade with Joe Garm, the sadistic old mercenary who carried off the abduction for Sir Rodney. Eagle devises a plan to hold one child for another, and flies off to London to kidnap Jennifer. Here follows more of Stokes’s patented sleaze, as Jennifer of course is nude when Eagle springs upon her in her bedroom, oggling her “medium size, pink buttoned” breasts and her “abundant brush of luxuriant red-gold pubic hair;” further, Eagle thinks she is “one of the most attractive females in the world.”

After the expected sexual shenanigans, Jennifer clings to Eagle and wants to help him – she hates her father and knows he lusts for her. Back they fly to Venezuela, where Jennifer tries to jerk Eagle off beneath a magazine, but he tells her no and “remains limp”(!). The helluva it is, after all this time spent on setting up the “one kid for another” bluff – it falls apart instantly! Eagle fails to fool Garm with the fake finger he claims is Jennifer’s, and thus Eagle is back to “square one.” Meaning we’ve spent about 50 dense-print pages on a veritable red herring of a subplot. But that’s Stokes for you.

At least we here get the first bit of action, with Eagle taking out a few men and escaping from Sir Rodney’s island in a sequence that brings to mind Stokes’s earlier Killmaster novel Mission To Venice. Here we also get the sole glimpse of Sir Rodney’s yellow(!) submarine, which is much talked up but ultimately forgotten; we’re told sleazy parties are held aboard, but Eagle just glances at it and steals a convenient inflatable raft from the cargo supplies. All that buildup for nothing. This sadly is just one indication of the sloppiness of Stokes’s plotting throughout. The novel is rife with heavily built-up, quickly tossed-aside subplots.

In fact, the kidnapping of Carlos de Ojeda – the act which got Eagle involved in the first place – is itself forgotten, for we learn that the kid has in fact been adbucted from his abducters; in hazily-rendered backstory we are informed that the Wild Dog’s soldiers have been mistreating the headhunter Indians in the nearby jungle, and these Indians, the Jivaro, launched an assault on the Wild Dog’s fortress and stole away Carlos de Ojeda, somehow knowing he was an important preson. 

Harkening back to the final quarter of Valley Of Vultures, John Eagle parachutes into the Venezuelan jungle to find the boy. Here, on page 145, we get the first mention of the usual Expeditor trappings: Eagle wears his insulated “plastic suit” and is armed with his “gas gun,” which fires needles. Finally, I thought to myself, we’ll get some of the stuff I love about this series – Eagle using his chameleon device to take out his enemies, along with the other high-tech gadgets and gear he usually employs. Instead, Eagle just pulls regular clothing overtop the plastic suit and just trudges through the jungle, pretending to be an oil prospector or something.

He hooks up with a Motilone Indian tribe led by pidgin-speaking Rauni, who reveals that his tribe is in the possesion of…the severed head of Carlos de Ojeda! Folks, that was pretty much it for me. The entire friggin’ purpose behind the entire friggin’ story has already been dispensed with, off-page…Eagle is informed the Jivaro killed the boy (and ate his body!), and Rauni doesn’t want his people to be blamed for it. He gives Eagle the head, and even offers him a 13 year-old girl that night; Eagle turns her down, despite being “tempted.” Eagle finally makes a few more kills, gunning down some Jivaro headhunters from cover, but for the most part our hero spends the “climax” running and hiding while other characters do themselves in for him.

Stokes can’t even give us an Eagle-Silverskull scene; Eagle becomes obsessed with glimpsing the elusive Sir Rodney, and ventures to his mansion, deep in the jungle. He arrives just as the Wild Dog’s men are pulling an assault on the place. Then, convenient plotting be damned, Jennifer just happens to parachute onto her dad’s property (Stokes earlier covering his ass by having Jennifer – that jetsetting nympho – declare that she’s fond of skydiving!), and Eagle pulls her away from the guerrilla soldiers who chase after her. There’s a clear Doctor No riff as the two run and hide from an armored marsh buggy; Stokes even refers to it as a “dragon.”

But friends, Eagle just hides in the tall grass and watches as the Wild Dog’s men and Sir Rodney’s men kill each other…and then the friggin’ Venezuelan air force arrives, and fighter jets blast all of them away – while Eagle just watches! I kid you not…when Eagle inspects the carnage afterwards, everyone’s dead, even Sir Rodney himself – killed off-page by a jet attack, the jets having been ordered by a vengeful Simon de Ojeda, who has somehow learned of his son’s death. That’s it! It’s all so lazy and hamfisted that I think there might be good possibility that Engel did in fact hold this one back from publication, only publishing it once the series’s fate was sealed.

Let’s recap: in the course of this novel, John Eagle beats up a henchman, kills a couple guys in combat, guns down a few Indians from afar, smokes one of his “rare cigarettes,” and gets laid by a hot nympho with an “abundant” bush. And yet we’re informed at the close of Silverskull that Eagle’s nerves are so rattled from this particular assignment that he’s told Polly Perkins, Mr. Merlin’s secretary, that he’ll be hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door of his Arizona ranch…for at least two months! (And speaking of Polly Perkins – I don’t believe we’ve previously been informed Eagle was even aware of Polly, which is perhaps more indication that Stokes had forgotten about his own series.) And here the novel as well as the series comes to a close, fittingly enough with Merlin hoping that Eagle will indeed get a chance to rest.

Plotwise the book is subpar, but as mentioned Manning Lee Stokes as ever invests himself in the writing. Nothing much might happen, but at least the writing’s good. It’s lacking some of the thematic elements of other Stokes installments; for example, the foreboding nature of The Green Goddess is gone – and for that matter, Stokes doesn’t pick up the subplot from that earlier book of whether Eagle’s foster mother survived her battle with cancer. Eagle himself seems a little blah throughout, lacking even the “macho mystique” which is usually standard for any Stokes protagonist. Save that is for a bit of TMI we’re given about Eagle’s youth:

Back on the Apache reservation, growing up with his friends, and at an age when such things were compared, [Eagle] had been known as kaki somn gunt – the well hung one. There had been the usual juvenile jackoff club with the chiefdom going to the one who could spurt farthest. Joe Thunder Horse had come in second there, too.

I used to figure that John Eagle Expeditor wasn’t really cancelled; it was just a casualty of Pyramid Books going out of business sometime in 1976. But only just now have I learned that, in 1977, Pyramid Books became Jove Books. This was news to me! So then Robert Lory was correct when he stated that the Expeditor series was in fact cancelled, thus denying us the novel Lory was considering, with John Eagle avenging the rape and/or murder of his girlfriend, Ruth Lame (sometimes “Lone”) Wolf (who by the way goes unmentioned this volume).

As I’ve gone on at length elsewhere, I really enjoy Stokes’s writing, but honestly I think he was my least favorite writer on this series. My favorite of the three who served as “Paul Edwards” would be Robert Lory, who for the most part stuck to the formula and who even made stabs at continuity, something neither Stokes nor Paul Eiden seemed to care much about. As for Eiden, the guy was wildly uneven in quality, and like Stokes seemed to sometimes forget the series he was writing for (ie Poppies Of Death), but despite which I still think he did a better job of sticking to the formula and delivering what I wanted from the series.

Well, now that I’ve finished the series, there’s only one thing left to do – the same thing I’m doing with The Baroness, just start reading it again!

Speaking of the Baroness, my own pet theory is that, after a few more years of adventuring, John Eagle and The Baroness hooked up, retired from the spy biz, and opened up a bed and breakfast somewhere on the coast of New England.


allan said...

This was one of my favourite GT posts.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks, Allan!