Monday, May 1, 2017

The Marksman #14: Kill!

The Marksman #14: Kill!, by Frank Scarpetta
December, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

Sporting one of the greatest, most succinct titles in men’s adventure history, Kill! is courtesy the fevered imagination of Russell Smith and comes off as a sort of sequel to an earlier Smith novel, No Quarter Given, which happened to be published as the 8th volume of The Sharpshooter, with editor Peter McCurtin simply changing the name of hero Philip Magellan to Johnny Rock. (And speaking of McCurtin, he no doubt came up with the title of this novel – per Len Levinson, McCurtin came up with the titles for every volume of The Marksman and The Sharpshooter; Len didn’t even bother titling the three manuscripts he turned in to McCurtin). 

Lynn Munroe, whose research into the twisted roots of this series can’t be praised enough, has Kill! as being a collaboration between McCurtin and Smith. Lynn always knows of what he speaks, but the book seems like pure Russell Smith to me, with no detectable McCurtin presence. Perhaps McCurtin listed himself on the copyright submission for the book because he came up with the title, who knows. But none of McCurtin’s more careful, straight prose is to be found in this one, which follows the usual brutish Russel Smith template: “hero” Magellan shows up in a new city, appraises the Mafia situation, ties up and drugs a few captives, and eventually begins murdering his prey, usually while they’re in the bathroom.

Such is the case with Kill!, which takes place in New Brunswick, NJ, home of Rutgers University – which here is a cesspit, mostly controlled by the local mob of Nick “The Screw” Corisco. Indeed Smith is at great pains to describe Rutgers and its environs as a hellhole; when Magellan arrives on the scene he quickly drives through town and can’t believe how shitty the place is. Magellan is here, through one of the more contrived backstories ever, thanks to an ad he saw in a friggin’ mens adventure magazine, I kid you not – one placed there by a Rutgers geology professor named Dr. Jeremy Bowles. Magellan even goes to the Argosy classified ads office in New York to research the mysterious advertisement; we’re informed that it ran in many men’s adventure and detective magazines.

Smith informs us that this installment occurs one year after Magellan has begun his war on the Mafia, an incident which was relayed in The Assassin #1 (which ironically enough was published one year before this book). The only clear element to tie this volume to a previous Smith manuscript is later in the book, when it’s stated that Magellan’s “most recent” anti-Mob activity was in Norfolk, Virginia, the events of which were detailed in No Quarter Given (which I guessed at the time was yet another Smith book…ah, the sweet taste of vindication). Those editorial Magellan/Rock gaffes so common from other books aren’t as apparent here, mostly because this one started and ended as a Marksman manuscript; other that is than a humorous slip on page 41: “Magellan…the man known as the Sharpshooter.” What more proof do we need to confirm my theory that The Assassin, The Marksman, and The Sharpshooter were all the same messed-up dude??

I’ve read enough of these Smith installments to figure out that he basically writes the same book over and over. Whatever city Magellan goes to will not only be mob-run but filled with competing mobs, and Smith will page-fill with various one-off mobsters plotting against each other. There will also likely be dirty cops in attendance. Magellan will arrive on the scene, check into a sleazy hotel (in which the mobsters themselves might also be staying), and he slowly figures out what’s going on. To do so he’ll capture a few people, tie them up, drug them, and interrogate them. “Action scenes” will be comprised of Magellan sneaking up on mobsters and shooting them in the back; more often than not this will happen while the mobsters are using the john. Along the way Magellan will hook up with a young woman, usually a waitress, who might have been abused by the local mobsters. The young woman will ultimately have nothing to do with anything, not even for a genre-customary sex scene (Magellan is as sexless as a robot, for the most part). The finale will be a harried, anticlimactic affair in which Magellan kills off the villains, all of whom have conveniently gathered in one spot.

Given this, it’s no wonder Smith turned in so many volumes of The Marksman, many of which were changed into Sharpshooter books. In addition to the above recurring elements, Smith will fill out his books with almost stream-of-consciousness dialog between the lowlife mobters, most of whom are only capable of spouting paragraphs of profanity. We’ll also get behind-the-scenes peeks into how the Mafia rakes in the cash through various illicit ventures. It’s the same thing over and over again in each Smith book, with only the barest details changed, and it explains why there were so many volumes of these two series published in such a short time – clearly, there was no quality control going on at Belmont-Tower or Leisure Books.

Which isn’t to say these books aren’t fun. I mean, I really love them! There is something admirable about the way Smith has figured out his hero is a psychopath, and thus Smith appears to write the novels themselves through a sort of psychopathic lens. His Marksman books take place in a strange alternate reality, and one thing you can never say about them is that they aren’t entertaining. But after so many of them you kind of want something a little more straight, something that doesn’t seem to have been dashed out in a single boozy weekend.

And Kill! is really dashed out in a hurry. The novel is filled with arbitrary, chapter-long arguments between mobsters and the dirty cops who work with them, and seemingly-important subplots are built up only to be completely forgotten. Like the bizarre tidbit that Dr. Bowles and Magellan look identical. This is played up, both characters puzzling over the mind-boggling improbability of it(!), but for the most part it’s just used for the occasional scene where Magellan pretends to be the kindly doctor, who has been blackmailed by Corsico’s mob – Bowles was in deep due to how expensive his global archeology trips are, and in exchange for repayment Nick the Screw now uses Bowles’s archeological site hauls from the Yucatan to smuggle heroin and guns.

Bowles has sent Magellan the coded letter in those men’s mag classifieds so as to get Corsico off his back. But while Magellan researches the situation, other characters are about ready to do the job for the doctor anyway: Joe Girotti, a psychopathic rival mob boss, is about ready to begin a war with Corsico, and aiding him is corrupt Captain Boffin of the New Jersey State Police. Smith page-fills with abandon as these various characters dither with one another, but occasionaly he throws in unexpected detours like when Girotti brutally – and arbitrarily, so far as the narrative itself goes – mutilates and murders Corsico’s wife in her bed. This lurid scene is so random and barely-explored as to be hilarious, but unquestionably Smith intends it as just another bit of his trademark dark humor, as evidenced via Corsico’s reaction to his wife’s bloody murder: “It was a brand new mattress, too!” 

Meanwhile Magellan dons his customary “hippie disguise,” drives around town in a rented Volvo bus, and “mingles” with the hippified students at Rutgers. Boy would I have loved to see Smith describe just a little of this. Eventually Magellan begins to impersonate Bowles, sometimes bullshitting his way out of situations by acting like the strong-willed professor. Surprisingly, though, Magellan has yet to kill anyone – even by page 90 the Marksman has yet to claim a life, which is quite unexpected, particularly for a book titled, uh, Kill! Instead Magellan knocks out a couple Corsico thugs, ties them up, and dumps them in the “university garage” where Dr. Bowles’s crates are stored. Later on Magellan proceeds to his other favorite passtime: tying up captives, drugging them, and then dropping them in the garage.

One of the captives he lets go, in a bit that’s not further explored: Maria, lovely young wife of a guy Nick the Screw has set up as his second in command in New Brunswick. Magellan abducts her and drugs her, carting her around per his usual method – and then when she wakes up he just talks to her! She gives him info on Corsico’s doings in town…and then Magellan lets her go! All very strange to say the least. Maria wants vengeance on Nick and whatnot, but you won’t be surprised to know that this is just another subplot Smith completely ignores and/or forgets about.

Magellan by the way is a bit off his game this time out, overly cautious and indecisive; there’s a part where he even wishes that he had an advisor who could suggest what actions he should take(!). Magellan’s uncertainty is no better displayed than a bizarro bit where he scopes out Joe Girotti’s house, standing on a trash can to look in a window. Magellan hefts his Uzi (which we’re informed he hasn’t used “in a long time”) and blasts away at the three stooges in the place, but the recoil knocks him off-balance – and he falls off the trash can, banging his head on the brick wall! For one of the few times in the series our godlike hero is completely at the mercy of his enemies, totally unconscious…but wakes in the room of lovely young Sally, 17 year-old sex captive of the mobsters. She’s real thankful that Magellan came along and killed all those guys, and hangs out with him for the remainder of the book, doubtless to never be mentioned again.

Smith injects the novel with his usual dark comedy, in particular a sequence in a diner. After saving young Marie, Magellan takes her to a diner. Per the usual Smith fondness for coincidence, a bunch of Girotti stooges roll into town and pick this exact spot to eat. So Magellan resorts to his customary method: sneaks into the bathroom while each is using it and blows them away. Then another mobster will go to check on the ones who are taking so long in the john, puke at the gory ruin within, and meet his own fate from Magellan’s silenced Beretta. Smith includes a running joke here with Magellan coming back to his table after each kill and dealing with an increasingly-impatient waitress, who wants Magellan’s order; the scene caps off with Magellan, who has now murdered all the mobsters, telling the waitress, “Well, now. I think I’ll have ham and eggs.” 

The story really belongs to the mobsters, who as mentioned fill up pages with, I kid you not, “conversations” that are almost completely made up of strung-together expletives. Nick the Screw, set up as the main villain early on, abruptly fades away and the villain slot is filled by Joe Girotti, whose sadism is barely explored, just casually detailed; he talks corrupt Captain Boffin into going into business with him and screwing over Nick the Screw. Action is periodic and arbitrary, like a part near the 100-page mark where Magellan finally makes his first kill, staging an impromptu raid on a Mafia gambling venture. Here Magellan uses something new in his arsenal, a sulphur grenade, donning a “plastic surgical mask” to protect himself from the fumes.

The finale is the usual rushed Smith job, so anticlimactic as to be hilarious. While Magellan poses as a worker, scoping out Captain Boffin’s mansion in the middle of a lake(!), Nick the Screw’s men pull an assault on the place. Magellan has been so out of it this volume that he’s yet to figure out that Dr. Bowles has been kidnapped, and indeed is being held captive right there in the lake house. He also shows no interest in Bowles’s hippie daughter, who first appears nude in the good doctor’s loft – Magellan is so razor-focused on Mafia-killing that he doesn’t even check out her nude body, or at least Smith doesn’t even properly exploit it. But Bowles is abruptly gone, clearly and obviously kidnapped like fifty pages ago; Magellan is really slow on the uptake this time around.

Anyway, they’re all here for this final “action sequence,” including even a dude Magellan has kept tied up for the past few chapters – I mean, with no explanation at all, the dude, a Mafia hitman who has been drugged and bound since halfway through the book, is there with Nick’s enforcers as they storm Boffin’s home. How does Smith explain how this guy made his escape? He simply writes, “Magellan was never to know.” Once everyone’s done killing each other (off-page), Magellan hoists his Uzi and another of those sulphur grenades and stages his own assault, perfunctorily killing Nick the Screw and conveniently enough saving Dr. Bowles – and only here does Magellan even realize Bowles had been kidnapped!

And that’s it for Kill!, which per the usual template just flat-out ends with no real resolution or wrap-up. All told this was a weird one, filled with that patented rough Russell Smith charm that I find entertaining despite its many, many faults. If anything I appreciate how this guy clearly banged his Marksman manuscripts out without wasting his time on editing or revising or any of that other limp-wristed stuff.


Stephen Mertz said...

Great review. I suspect you put more attention into this novel than did the author! And a wonderful picture of the two of you.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks, Stephen!