Monday, June 26, 2017

The Deadly, Deadly Art

The Deadly, Deadly Art, by Gilbert Ralston
November, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Another Pinnacle crime paperback of the ‘70s which is forgotten today, The Deadly, Deadly Art is courtesy Gilbert Ralston, who at the time was also writing the Dakota series for Pinnacle – which, according to the ad for the series at the front of the book, was up to the third volume when this one was published.

I haven’t gotten to that installment of Dakota yet (I’m still sleepy from the first one), but Marty McKee notes that its villain happened to be obsessed with ancient Egyptian cat-god Bastet. This is interesting, because the villain of The Deadly, Deadly Art is also obsessed with Bastet…meaning Ralston turned in two novels to Pinnacle roughly around the same time which both dealt with Bastet. The back cover has it that “the cat-man” is a professional assassin who pulls jobs both for money and as “sacrifices” to his god; a “tough New York lawman” is determined to bring him down.

It all sounds very interesting, but unfortunately Gilbert Ralston wrote the book. Once again he has turned in a listless, slow-moving affair that makes little use of its oddball ideas, and offers zilch in the way of sex and/or violence. In fact the sole sex scene is a repeat of the one in the first volume of Dakota: “He plunged into her.” That’s the entire sex scene. Ralston was a former TV writer, and one quickly gleans he made his living coming up with words to put into the mouths of actors; The Deadly, Deadly Art is mostly comprised of various characters engaging in pretentious conversations.

The killer is Brian Lee Sattler, a snooty type who, despite his professorial manner (literally so, as he’s a college art professor), is really a bad-ass ‘Nam vet and an expert at karate and judo. Imagine Chuck Norris as Frasier Crane and you’ll be close. Sattler’s background is sprinkled through the novel, but we learn that he was an orphan raised by a foster family he hated, because they killed his pet cat(!), and now he teaches art at a small college in Connecticut while doing assassination jobs for a mysterious handler named Kiefer. He spends most of his time in New York City, which is where we meet him when the novel opens, killing a much-hated executive of the UBC television network in broad daylight on the busy rush-hour sidewalks of Manhattan.

Sattler’s weapon here is a curare-laced “tiny gold rapier,” which I believe is what the weapon on the cover photo is intended to be. Before he kills the man Sattler mutters “Bastet;” this will be a recurring theme through the book, with Sattler invoking his god’s name to “offer up” sacrifices or even his own pain. But Ralston does precious little to explain why Sattler even came upon Bastet as his god…we know he loves cats (he has three in his Connecticut home), but to go from that to worshipping an ancient feline deity is pretty extreme.

As mentioned Ralston was a TV writer and thus the material at UBC headquarters might be taken from his personal experience, though the most we get out of it is that the TV industry is a brutal cycle of promotions and terminations. It’s more about the executive level, with hardly anything about the actual production side; Sattler’s first kill is courtesy a UBC bigwig who wants to get another one out of the way. This murder serves to bring our hero onto the scene: a 30-something detective named Mack Bennett, who ultimately has no personality – Ralston gives Bennett a brief backstory of marriage and divorce, but he’s so dedicated to his job that he’s one-dimensional.

Bennett and his partner Doug Foster investigate the murder; the only reason they know it’s one, and not the heart attack initially thought, was because the M.E. discovered a pinprick in the corpses’s ribs – the entrance wound from that tiny rapier. Meanwhile the instrument itself eventually falls into the hands of the police; Sattler goes to a nightclub owned by a former cathouse madam and gets hooked up with a sexy French singer named Valerie. When it looks like she’s becoming an item with Sattler, a jealous suitor attacks him in the park, and Sattler makes quick work of him with those karate moves, killing him instantly and “offering him up to Bastet.”

Without knowing it Sattler has dropped the little rapier in the skirmish, and later the cops turn it up. This provides a big narrative red herring as Bennett figures the dead guy in the park might’ve been the murderer of the UBC exec, what with the curare on the rapier found at the murder scene. A big part of The Deadly, Deadly Art is given over to Bennett and partner meeting and interviewing various witnesses and experts, and here again Ralston shows his TV background with lots of dialog, most of it expository.

More pages are filled with Brian Sattler’s life in rural Schuyler, Connecticut, where he has a steady flame named Jennifer who happens to be a fellow teacher at his college. Jennifer is in love with Sattler and wants to marry him but suspects he’s hiding something from her. Little does she know that in the cellar of Sattler’s home is a locked-up chamber he has spent years perfecting: it is filled with priceless works of art, including a statue of Bastet, and each item has been paid for by one of his kills. Sattler likes to stand around and “bask” in the “perfection” of the chamber, which is a sort of adyton to Bastet (not a term Ralston uses in the book, but I wanted to prove I could be just as pretentious as his damn characters).

Things pick up when Sattler’s next job has him working for a wealthy man named Wentworth, who along with his wife want a rival killed off. Sattler falls in love with virginal Diane, pretty daughter of Wentworth and his first wife – there follows more pretentious dialog as Sattler exclaims on Diane’s piano playing and whatnot. Gradually Sattler will want to quit the assassin life and marry Diane(!), something which his handler Kiefer tells him is impossible. This sets off the confrontation between the two which proves to be the climax.

Meanwhile Bennett himself gets hitched – to Valerie, that hotstuff French babe Sattler was involved with early in the book. Bennett has finally come across Sattler’s name and figures him for the killer, though no one believes him. But first he and Valerie have to high-tail it to Maryland for a quickie marriage(!?). After this Valerie insists on following Bennett around like a loyal puppy…not that Bennett gets into any action-movie esque shootouts or anything. Friends, Bennett doesn’t even take out his gun in the novel!

Instead, Sattler, who has been injured by the traitorous Wentworths, gets his revenge and then kills the man Kiefer has sent to kill him. He then sets up the corpse in an elaborate scheme to make it look like Sattler himself has died in a house fire, burning down his precious Bastet chamber in the process. But karma’s a bitch, as in a preposterous finale Sattler is killed in a car accident as he makes his way to Canada – killed when the driver in front of him slams on his brakes to avoid a cat crossing the road. As Bart Simpson once said, “The ironing is delicious.”

Otherwise The Deadly, Deadly Art is bland and forgettable. The hero is as bland as the book, and there are no action scenes to speak of; Sattler’s kills are almost perfunctory given how superhuman he is. About the most tense part is when the Wentworths try to kill him and Sattler goes after them for revenge. But at 180-some pages of smallish, dense print, that’s too little reward. At the very least I’m interested to see what the Bastet-worshipper is like in Ralston’s third Dakota book.

1 comment:

Tim Gueguen said...

I can't help but notice the similarities to Trevanian's Jonathan Hemlock, a university professor with a collection of stolen art who's a professional killer. This book postdates The Eiger Sanction, so it would be interesting to know if Ralston came up with this on his own, or if some editor at Pinnacle asked him to write a Hemlock style character.