Monday, January 15, 2018

Butler #2: Smart Bombs

Butler #2: Smart Bombs, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

I was kind of lukewarm on the first volume of Butler, that leftist, late ‘70s take on James Bond courtesy Len Levinson (aka “Philip Kirk”). I enjoyed it, but I felt that the tone was inconsistent, unsure if it wanted to be a straight spy thriller or more of a light comedy. Also, the random left-wing diatribes were a bit jarring. I’m happy to report though that I really enjoyed this second volume, which not only dispenses with the diatribes but also sticks to a consistent tone. Plus it has the memorable characterization and witty dialog we’ve come to expect from Len.

It’s a few months after The Hydra Conspiracy, and when we meet up with him again, Butler (age 32, and as ever no first name given) is on a submarine in the Baltic sea, about to extract a Soviet defector. The defector claims to have the plans to a new bomb-guidance disruption system the Russians have developed, something that could upset the global power balance. Butler’s agency the Bancroft Insititute is dedicated to ensuring the world balance stays intact; whereas the regular spy hero would want to get the plans for the betterment of his or her country, Butler’s task is to get the plans so the Bancroft Institute can release them to all countries, so everyone has this new technology and one country won’t have superiority over the others.

Butler is undaunted by the physical demands ahead, as he bench presses 260 lbs (his “pectoral muscles nearly as big as pineapples”) and he “jog[s] like everybody else these days.” While he’s suited up for any potential trouble, as always relying on his .45 automatic, Butler doesn’t get in any scrapes. However his target, Dr. Kahlovka, is not on the beach. Instead, a pretty young Russian woman who claims to be his daughter, Natalia, is there. A stacked blonde, Natalia claims that her dad was captured by the KGB, but she escaped. With reservations, Butler takes her back to the sub – and here Len engages in a little of the in-jokery we saw back in the first volume, which featured a character named “Levinson.” This time we’re informed a crew member on the sub is named “Lt. Jordan,” which no doubt is a reference to Len’s pseudonym Leonard Jordan.

While Butler doesn’t trust Natalia, even when she passes the “infallible” lie-detector of the Bancroft Institute, he doesn’t waste much time getting into her pants – and she’s eager to comply after a strip search Butler gives her, in one of the book’s funniest sequences. The back copy of the book is headlined “SEXPIONAGE,” and Len does his best throughout to live up to it. Posthaste Butler and Natalia are getting it on in explicit fashion, though as ever couched in those somewhat-goofy terms and phrases Len used in the first volume, ie: “[Natalia] rubbed her little garden against his stiffening phallus.”

Butler gets a lot of action in this one; after dropping off Natalia at the local Bancroft office in Sweden, he gets it on with a pair of French babes, though Len leaves this one off-page. Back at the Sweden office, Butler is informed by the never-seen CEO of Bancroft, Sheffield, that this whole smart bomb technology, which scrambles the lasers that guide missiles, needs to be taken from the Russians, as soon as possible, and disseminated to other countries. So Butler’s going to have to go into Moscow (that is, if he doesn’t mind – Bancroft is a pretty easygoing spy institute). He doesn’t speak Russian, and he’s never been there, but he’s the most experienced field operative in Bancroft. Sheffield informs him that young Natalia will be going along with him.

This concerns Butler as it is becoming more apparent that Natalia, barely into her 20s, is falling in love with Butler. This doesn’t prevent him from engaging her in more XXX-rated shenanigans. After some training in Russian, Butler, disguised as a deaf mute peasant, ventures with Natalia into “the tractless space that was Russia.” In Moscow they meet their contact, an undercover Bancroft member who works in the munitions factory. Her name is Sonia and of course she’s a stacked beauty, but she is, much to Butler’s dismay, a lesbian. Even more alarming surprises ensue, when it turns out Natalia is in fact a KGB spy, and has led Butler and Sonia into a trap.

The goofy tone of the series is displayed as Butler endures the most easygoing interrogation you’ll ever read in a spy novel; mostly he just keeps bragging “I made you come” to Natalia, now revealed as a total KGB goon, one who keeps insisting to her comrade that Butler did not make her come, and that in fact she hated his every touch. Thanks to a laser pen that could’ve come out of one of the Roger Moore Bond movies, Butler is able to free himself and Sonia, though again the whole thing is so goofy…Natalia and her comrade don’t even take the pen from Butler when they catch him, and they naively fall for his request that he use his own pen to sign the confession letter they have prepared for him. Len does prove though that he’ll kill off characters without warning – I expected there would be more to come from Natalia, but that’s all she wrote for the character (so to speak). 

There’s a lot of funny stuff between Butler and Sonia, with Butler constantly hassling her for sex – even begging her at one point to close her eyes and think Butler’s probing fingers belong to a sexy actress! And mind you all this occurs while they’re running and hiding from the KGB. Butler has made a bet with Sonia that, if he gets them to safety, she’ll have to have sex with him, but curiously Len drops this subplot, even though Butler succeeds in getting them both – plus a Soviet bigwig and his mistress – into the US embassy. (A hilarious scene which has the bigwig debating on the embassy steps if he should emigrate to the US, and when he does so, bounding up the stairs and calling down to his former comrades: “I’m going to Disneyland!”)

Butler heads back to DC, Sonia now gone from the book – Butler later on mutters to himself how you can never trust women, using Sonia’s lack of screwing him, even though she’d said she would, as evidence. Instead we get walk-ons from various returning characters, among them FJ Shankham, Butler’s former boss at the CIA, still as duplicitous as ever – Butler catches him out on the balcony of his hotel room one night, recording Butler while he’s having sex with his ex-wife. This is Brenda Day, a promiscuous jet-setter now married to some government VIP. Butler runs into her at a restaurant and talks his way into her pants, as well, in another XXX sequence.

The smart bomb stuff isn’t done yet, though; Butler still needs to destroy the technology. The gizmos are built in Syria, and Bancroft sets Butler up with Farouk Moussa, a former professor turned Bancroft agent, and the sexy Wilma B. Willoughby, returning from the previous volume. And speaking of which, I just re-read my review of The Hydra Conspiracy, and in it I failed to clarify something; Wilma provided Butler’s entrance into Bancroft by staging her own murder. I forgot to clarify that Wilma wasn’t actually dead in my review of the first book. But she and Butler have a fiery relationship, mostly because Wilma refused to have sex with him; with reservations Butler agrees to have her on the mission into Syria.

Wilma is “a cute little bitch if ever there was one,” and her spats with Butler are another of the book’s highlights; a weary Farouk immediately figures out there’s something beneath the surface between these two and recommends they just screw and get it over with. There’s an interesting bit here where Len has Butler, Wilma, and Farouk – ie the Westerners – strap plastic explosives on their persons and sneak into Syrian – ie Muslim – territory. Almost a bizarro-world parallel of the current day. Some things are sadly the same, though; the trio slip through war-torn Beirut, Len documenting the hellish surroundings, with corpses of men, women, and children everywhere.

Humorously, Len sets up the mission into the Syrian munitions plant, with Butler and comrades in black and ready to take on the Russians there – meanwhile Wilma has honey-trapped a scientist that works in the place, so they can get the blueprints of the place via a Bancroft truth serum. But when they get inside the factory, they encounter no resistance and in fact find a team of Israeli commandos already on the scene, taking their own photos of the smart bomb tech plans. Rather, Len goes a different direction for the novel’s climax – that long-delayed Butler-Wilma banging.

“Hate me in the morning, but love me tonight. That’s my motto,” Butler tells an initially-skittish Wilma, in what is the novel’s most memorable and quotable line of dialog. Wilma you see wants to bang Butler as well, but resists due to his priggishness; he successfully gets her to slip into bed with him here in this slummy Syrian hotel, as they’ve checked in as a married couple (Wilma can speak the lingo here, while Butler can’t), and the security guards are known to randomly check rooms to ensure guests are really who they claim to be. But as Wilma suspects, Butler’s ulterior motive is to get Wilma in bed and have his way with her.

Folks, the ensuing boff runs for 11 pages, and is possibly the most explicit sex scene I’ve yet read in Len’s oeveure, complete with thorough descriptions of Butler getting Wilma worked up to the boiling point and screwing her silly – after which Wilma immediately starts the proceedings anew. The two go at it all night, but next day Wilma, while being debriefed in Bancroft’s Syrian office, requests that she never again be put on an assignment with Butler. She refuses to look at him and storms off, leaving both Butler and the reader confused – this after Wilma has sworn to Butler, during that night of nonstop sin, that she wants to go stay with him in some remote cabin for a week or two. Methinks Len is working up a long-simmer romance between these two characters, but time will tell.

All of which is to say I really liked Smart Bombs. Len finds the right vibe throughout; while it’s funny, it’s never a goofy satire a la The Destroyer, where nothing is taken seriously. Butler worries about his safety – a bit more so than the typical men’s adventure protagonist, in fact – and the stakes are always life and death. But it’s all delivered with the goofy charm we know and expect from Len, with characters trading quips and philosophical asides while hiding from jackbooted KGB thugs. I liked this one a lot more than its predecessor, and look forward to reading more of Butler.

1 comment:

Len Levinson said...

It's another insightful review by Joe Kenney. I always enjoy reading his perspectives on my books. Regarding lengthy sex scenes, I tended to toss one in or stage some violence whenever I couldn't figure out what the next scene should be. I had to write these novels quickly and didn't have time for extended meditations on plotting. The next scene or sequence of scenes usually came to me during the sex scene or violence. I enjoyed writing this novel as much as Joe evidently enjoyed reading it, and thought the series improved with each new book.,