The Sharpshooter #13: Savage Slaughter, by Bruno Rossi
February, 1975 Leisure Books
Very grim stuff and not the light reading I expected but surprisingly well written and exceptionally powerful. Definitely the best of the series. -- Rayo Casablanca, the Sick Hipster blog
I’ve been looking forward to this volume of The Sharpshooter since reading Rayo’s comments on it years ago; I should’ve just jumped straight ahead to it, but instead I’ve been reading the series in order. Not that there’s much “order” to the Sharpshooter. And, as Lynn Munroe suspects, it would appear that Savage Slaughter started life as a Marksman novel, anyway – while the copy editing is much better than previous such books, there are still a handful of slips where “Rock” is referred to as “Magellan.”
However, Savage Slaughter might answer a question I’ve long held – namely, who the hell wrote the almighty Bronson: Blind Rage. Because I’m 90% sure the same author wrote Savage Slaughter, and if Lynn’s speculations are correct, then it was George Harmon Smith, a prolific writer editor Peter McCurtin apparently used as his “fixit” author. While Smith never listed “Bruno Rossi” as one of his many pseudonyms, Lynn suspects that Smith might not’ve been aware that his Marksman novel, as “Frank Scarpetta” (a pseudonym Smith did list), was transformed into a Sharpshooter.
As we’ll recall, Blind Rage was a friggin’ masterpiece of sadism, with a deranged “hero” who, in the course of the narrative, wrought his vengeance in the most brutal of ways, from torching the pubic hair of a random floozie to emasculating some guy with a shard of glass. Or how about the part where he caged some guy and let loose a bunch of rats on him? “Johnny Rock” goes to even more insane lengths in this book, and to me it’s clear indication of that same author’s fevered imagination. To wit:
Early in the book Rock interrogates a drug pusher. When the guy won’t talk, Rock pulls down the guy’s pants, breaks open a bullet cartridge, and pours gun powder on his crotch, threatening to light it up. “This is going to be the come of the century.” The pusher gives Rock the info – and then Rock says “Bye, bye, motherfucker,” and sets his crotch on fire, anyway. He then delivers the coup de grace: a bullet to the face.
Not long after this, Rock is baited by a honey trap – turns out the girl works for someone else, someone who wants to hire Rock. When she comes back to his apartment to drop off the keys to a car they've gotten him, Rock knocks her out, throws her on his bed, strips her – and, well, you can figure out the rest. At least the author doesn’t go full-bore with it and leaves the scene vague. However the girl’s unconscious throughout, and later on Rock thinks briefly about it – but doesn't regret it.
At one point Rock wants to weed out a heroin pipeline, and in order to do so he sets himself up as a pusher. He doses a stash with cyanide, killing off a slew of users with “hot shots,” chalking up their deaths as collateral damage. He pulls such stunts throughout the book, like when he hits a mob-run massage parlor and “dance palace,” figuring the (otherwise innocent) patrons there should’ve known better, anyway – and killing just as many of them as the mobsters he’s there for.
A grueling sequence has Rock interrogating another guy, this one a Vietnamese dude who turns out to be a soldier from North Vietnam who is part of a heroin-importing business. (A subplot which curiously goes nowhere.) This part will raise the hackles of the most bloodthirsty reader, as Rock busts out a pair of pliers and sets about breaking the dude’s toes one by one, at some points having to stomp on the pliers because the joints are too strong! Then he sets the dude’s foot on fire, then he jabs a penknife in the dude’s eye! And only then does the tough bastard finally talk! Guess how the scene ends? (If you said “point-blank bullet to the face,” you win a no-prize…)
And then my friends comes the piece de resistance; toward the final third of the novel, Rock gets hold of a Mafia gunner who was part of a crew that killed someone close to our crazed hero. Rock strips the guy down, ties him up here in the desert in which the sequence occurs, and tracks down a diamondback snake. After interrogating this latest victim, Rock…actually, read for yourself:
The snake’s deadly head darted forward again, striking twice, and Rock could see flecks of blood on the man’s dangling genitals as he pulled the snake back again…He walked back over and sat down near the man, watching him writhe in agony and listening to his moans and screams, his begging pleas for help. It took about an hour. The man’s testicles and penis swelled and turned a dark splotchy black, then he began to have trouble breathing. He went into spasms a few minutes later and lost control over his bowels, and a foul stench came from him as his body jerked and heaved, mashing and spreading the thick, heavy feces which came from him. His body began undulating in strong convulsions as his face became mottled, and the wire cut into his wrists and ankles. Presently he went into deep shock, his breathing stopped, and he died.
But all is not perfect in this sadistic paradise, for the sad truth is Savage Slaughter is so drawn out as to be a wearying read; it comes in at a whopping 218 pages, which is much, much too long for a Sharpshooter or Marksman novel – and that’s 218 pages of small, dense print. This particular “Bruno Rossi,” if indeed George Harmon Smith he be, is truly a gifted writer, capable of doling out some compelling prose and characters, but the sad fact is he doesn’t know when to say when. There’s a ton of stuff that could’ve been cut from the book to make for a more streamlined read, and there’s a lot of repetition throughout.
Every single thing Johnny Rock does is explained to the utmost degree; if the dude smokes a cigarette we’ll read as he rips open the pack, takes one out, lights the match, inhales, etc. If he crosses a street we’ll read about every step of the way. The author can write but doesn’t seem to understand that this particular genre demands brevity. Even the action scenes, while gory, suffer from the same thing – blocks and blocks of description with little emotional content. For this reason I can’t agree with Rayo, that this is the best book of the series; indeed, there were parts where I wished Savage Slaughter would just end already. But meanwhile the author was too busy with arbitrary plot detours, like a random diatribe about racial tensions in San Francisco to an overlong part where Rock lives in a shack in the desert and has to fix all the old, broken equipment in it.
It's been a few years since I read Blind Rage, so I can’t recall if it too suffered from this overwriting. But given the levels of sadism on display – coupled with the almost blasé attitude of the protagonist – makes me suspect it’s the same author: George Harmon Smith. However one thing to note is that, despite the violence and gore, Savage Slaughter is curiously conservative with the sex scenes, all of which occur off-page. I don’t remember this being the case with Blind Rage. I also seem to recall the author of that book using words that don’t appear in this one, like “focussed” instead of “focused,” and “pellets” instead of “bullets,” so despite all my above musings I could be dead wrong, and it’s a different author here.
But anyway, Savage Slaughter appears to have started life as a Marksman novel, though we don’t get to our first “Magellan” gaffe until page 154, after which there are only a few more such slips. But the cagey reader knows something is up from the first pages; while the novel opens with Rock waking from a dream and thinking about how his mom and dad were killed by the Mafia, which is of course the incident which set Johnny Rock on his mob-busting career, later on in the book Rock announces himself thusly: “I’m Rock, the guy whose wife and kid were wasted by the Mafia.” That of course is the incident which set Philip Magellan on his mob-busting career. (Actually, it was Robert Briganti, but it’s the same character, right?)
This particular author is pretty familiar with the workings of the underworld, especially when it pertains to the grimy world of heroin-pushing. In fact Rock at times seems more focused on stopping drugs than wasting mobsters. To this end Rock is hired by the CIA early on; they want to use him to close in on mob boss Sully Gianelli and his brother. (The criminal brothers is another parallel with Blind Rage.) The author also understands that the CIA has no jurisdiction within the US, something he often has his CIA agent reminding Rock. But the Agency will provide Rock with weapons, cars, and whatever else he needs in his war of attrition on the Mafia.
Rock tails the Gianellis all the way from New York to San Francisco, the author already displaying his overwriting – it goes on and on, complete with stops in roadside diners. And in SanFran we get that above-mentioned detour into the racial tensions of the city, and that goes on for pages and pages. Things liven up with that grueling torture sequence, of Rock maiming the Viet drug pusher, but afterwards it gets bizarre – Rock runs into young Shirley and her dad and, apropos of nothing, decides to become their guardian, even subtly implying that he’ll marry Shirley!
But folks, I hate to burst any bubbles with this spoiler, but Shirley’s friggin’ dead like a handful of pages after she’s introduced, gang-raped and beaten to death offpage – and Rock comes back just in time for her to die in his arms. (You’d think Rock would learn here not to get involved with anyone – or at least not to leave anyone he loves alone for long, but nope…he doesn’t learn.) But the whole part is so arbitrary as to be hilarious, and another indication of material that could’ve been cut. At least it has a nice payoff, with Rock phoning his local CIA contact and getting some heavy gear; he launches a revenge blitz on a mob whorehouse, doling out plentiful gory deaths with a Thompson submachine gun, shotgun, and grenades.
Heading into New Mexico until the heat dies down, Rock, despite his protestations, ends up giving a sexy young hitchhiker a lift. This is Barbara, who relays her sad sack story to Rock from page 128 to 141(!). This is a miniature story in itself, as egregious as can be, made all the worse by the fact that Rock eagerly listens to the whole thing, even asking questions here and there. The Sharpshooter cares, folks! But seriously Barbara’s story is like the turbulent ‘60s in microcosm, taking in her college days in hippie-terrorist groups to her meeting with a ‘Nam vet who changed her entire perspective with a simple question: The hippies might be against the Vietnam war, but have you ever asked if the Vietnamese people are against it? While interesting, and very much like the Hippie Lit I used to enjoy so much, it goes on and on and friggin’ on.
Barbara is the one who pleads with Rock to get that cabin in the desert; there ensues more padding with the couple having a veritable happy life over the next few weeks, complete with inordinate scenes of an old prospector coming over to visit and bringing gifts and etc. This could be another Blind Rage parallel, as just as that author got you to care about Bronson’s main squeeze before killing her off, so too does this author strive for the same thing – only Barbara’s kind of annoying, and to tell the truth the impact is dilluted by the galacial pace of the novel. But once again Rock goes off on some random quest, pushing down his suspicion that something might be amiss – like for example that helicopter that recently passed over their cabin.
This time when Rock suffers his latest heartbreak, which lasts for like a hot second or two, the reader is prepared to laugh – I mean seriously, the author pulls the same thing twice in the same book! In a way I admire his moxie. While this setback doesn’t elicit another revenge-hit, it does lead to the bit with the diamondhead. And later Rock tracks down the mobster who ordered the kill and takes him out – but here too is another detour from Blind Rage, where we got to witness our insane hero exacting his bloody vengeance. In Savage Slaughter, Rock generally shoots up the place and we read that random dudes go down in bloody sprays of gore, but rarely do we read about the main target getting his just deserts. In a way this robs the novel of its dramatic thrust.
Rock spends a long time hiding in this one, too; first it’s for a few weeks in the desert shack, then it’s in a CIA safehouse. They even provide him with some female company – which of course turns out to be the very same woman Rock raped, early in the book. And after a brief scuffle, in which she tries to claw out his eyes catfight style, the girl gives in to Rock’s charms! Her name is Betty, and she’s a kick-ass field agent herself; she is the only character in the novel to openly state how friggin’ nuts Rock is, telling him he’s “fucked up and rotted away inside.” But still and all, she lives with him in the safehouse for a whopping five weeks, during which Rock grows a moustache to disguise his features.
Another thing that kills dramatic impact in Savage Slaughter is that there is a lot of telling before showing. As is the case here, where Rock’s CIA handler Halton shows up again and they go on and on and on about this hit Rock could make on a mob wedding – I’m talking every inconsequential detail worked out. And to make it worse, we see it all go down just as planned! At any rate Rock disguises himself as a delivery man, bringing flowers to the event, but instead drops off some explosives that wipe everyone out – innocents and all (including a male wedding planner presented as so mincingly gay that he’s sure to trigger the sensitive readers of today).
There’s no pickup from previous books, no setup for ensuing ones. Overall the novel really does have the feel of a true Sharpshooter, with only a few indications of its original Marksman nature slipping through the cracks. In addition to the handful of “Magellan” slips, we also are reminded sometimes of Rock’s “wife and kid” who were killed, which is incorrect, and also we’re told that he misses his Uzi – a favored Magellan weapon, as is the Beretta Rock uses throughout. But other than that, this one feels like a Johnny Rock novel; it’s mean and sadistic as hell, and written much better than the series average – it’s just so bloated and padded it loses much of its impact.