Hell On Wheels, by Adam Lassiter
May, 1985 Bantam Books
You’d never know it from the title or from the book itself, but Hell On Wheels is actually the third volume of the Dennison’s War series, which ran for six volumes.* “Adam Lassiter” was in reality Steven M. Krauzer, an author I’m not familiar with, though I know he penned some Executioner novels for Gold Eagle.
Ever since I read Zwolf’s review (as well as the fab series overview Justin Marriott provided in an issue of Paperback Fanatic) I’ve meant to check out Hell On Wheels. This is one of the few series that I’ve never bothered tracking down in full, but I got this volume a while back and finally gave it a go. First off, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Zwolf did, but I can tell he’s more into biker fiction than I am; and Hell On Wheels is straight-up biker fiction throughout. No doubt much of the “research” in it was courtesy Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.
A humorous thing about Hell On Wheels is that the reader is given precious little info on who the hell Dennison is, let alone what exact “war” he’s fighting. For that matter, Dennison’s group, which appears to be made up of rugged individualists who go out on solo missions, is referred to throughout as “Dennison’s People.” Admittedly this wouldn’t make for the best title for a men’s adventure series, and in fact sounds more like a PBS kid’s show. But we get zero in the way of setup – Dennison, who is in his forties and has graying hair, has a compound somewhere in the US, as well as a hotstuff blonde bombshell named Miss Paradise who works with (or for) him in some unstated capacity.
But it appears that each volume of Dennison’s War sees the various “People” of Dennison being sent out on some assignment; this volume the spotlight is on Chris Amado, the Smurfette of the team. Due to the other people being indisposed for various reasons, Dennison drafts Chris for the latest assignment – preventing the potential unifaction of two major biker gangs. This info comes courtesy a biker named Chicken Charley, who not only turns out to be an undercover federal agent but also an old ‘Nam comrade of Dennison’s. Charley has infiltrated the gangs to the point that he has begun to question his sanity. Why the regular cops can’t stop this potential merger – which would see a mafia-like network of illicit crime taking over the country – is explained away by the usual nonsense.
It’s up to Chris Amado, dammit! The fact that she’s given an uphill battle – not only infiltrating a biker gang but doing it as a woman – is sort of brushed aside. So is Chris’s background; we get just a little detail that she was born in the US, grew up in some banana republic, and got involved with all sorts of guerrilla warfare sort of stuff. Without much fuss she gets on a Harley Davidson Electra-Glide, drapes her hot bod in torn leather jeans and a tank top, and roars into a biker dive frequented by the Outsiders, one of the two major biker gangs. And so she begins her mission to sow chaos and discord in the potential biker merger.
Krauzer’s writing is good, but be aware he is one of those men’s adventure authors who is concerned with turning out a “real” novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but there’s precious little in the way of the sex and violence one usually craves from this genre. Krauzer instead plays it out as a suspense thriller, more focused on Chris trying to figure out what’s going on while ingrating herself into the hoary world of the bikers; he saves practically all the action for the final pages, and truth be told it’s almost anticlimactically rendered. I mean, there’s none of the explosive action onslaught as depicted by men’s adventure magazine veteran artist Bob Larkin (whose work is credited) on his awesome fold-out cover painting, which Zwolf helpfully scanned for all to see at the above link.
So we’re in for the long haul as Chris ingratiates herself into the grungy, male-dominated society of bikers, proving herself as a tough female biker and not just the usual female groupie: there’s taciturn Rock, leader of the gang, who always sports aviator sunglasses and mysteriously only drinks coffee; Lizzie, Rock’s downtrodden “mama,” who takes an instant hatred to Chris; Snake, Rock’s lieutenant; Pretty Boy, a biker who looks like a surfer and who keeps staring hard at Chris; and inumerable others. In addition there are the members of the Mad Dogs, led by Apeman, a grotesquely-ugly freak who wears a suit and tie. There’s a lot of material here apparently gleaned from biker books or magazines, and in that regard Hell On Wheels is more along the lines of biker fiction than men’s adventure.
As mentioned it’s an uphill battle for Chris; she must constantly prove her worth to the misogynist bikers, most of whom just want to put the moves on her. She’s able to bullshit her way into Rock’s orbit, claiming she’s a “brother” from a previous bit of criminous biker action with an affiliate gang. We get a goofy bit of Mission: Impossible-esque stuff here where two fellow Dennison’s People save Chris’s ass: William Stirling-Price, a Green Beret colonel in ‘Nam, and Vang, a Montagnard in the war, shadow Chris in the early stages of her assignment, providing unseen assistance. First they intercept a call to confirm her story, making it sound legit, and most ridiculously they even play the would-be victims of the Outsiders. Chris at one point is forced to shoot someone who refuses to pay the bikers, as another of her trials by fire – and it turns out to be Price in disguise, Chris’s gunshot itself a further bit of trickery.
While there’s less action and much less sex than men’s adventure novels of earlier years (actually make that zero sex), there is one thing in Hell On Wheels that you won’t find as much of in genre examples from a decade or so before: rampant cursing. The word “cunt” in particular is repeated throughout the novel, this basically becoming Lizzie’s name for Chris, whom she sees as a competitor for Rock’s romantic attentions. You get a lot of that, but little in the way of thrills – the first true action scene isn’t until page 90, when Chris is finally discovered in her snooping. It’s at a biker-palooza sort of event in the desert, all the bikers here to celebrate Chris’s induction into the Outsiders. An old biker catches her listening in on Rock’s plans of what to do about Apeman; Chris kills him with a knife and plants the body as a decoy.
After this we get a herculean undertaking Rock tasks Chris with: driving 24 hours cross-country to arrange a last-minute pow-wow with Apeman. Off Chris hauls on her Harley to Manhattan, home of the Mad Dogs, where Apeman himself finally appears in the text; Chris considers him “the most grotesque human being” she has ever seen. Even here Chris must prove herself, engaging Apeman’s towering black henchman Big Buck in combat. This ends in a sort of draw, but later, in a brawl at a black-frequented biker bar, we get to see Big Buck pop some dude’s eyeball out. More fun ensues, like when Apeman, who goes around with a revolver in a waist belt, smart-offs to the parents of some kid who talks to him at a rest stop, and then the bikers close in on the family car and begin bashing it with chains like that Road Rash II video game I loved in college.
The climax sees the two gangs getting together to discuss the merger – and Rock decides Chris must die, after all, mostly because he’s heard that she talked shit about him to Apeman, Chris at the time trying to sow even more dissention. Off she’s taken by Pretty Boy and his weasel-like buddy to be raped and killed. Instead Chris gets the drop on both of them, kills Pretty Boy (with a knee to the balls!), and then the weasel guy grabs a gun and has Chris dead bang…and Krauzer pulls the one copout the action writer must never pull: the bad guy’s gun jams. Folks, only the hero’s gun is allowed to jam, ever. Ever!! Otherwise the author is guilty of one of the lamest, most brazen copouts a writer of action-fiction can pull.
But weasel-boy’s gun jams, and Chris takes him out, then she breaks into the mini arsenal in the van they’ve taken her off to be raped and killed in; now she’s got a few Mac-10s, a shotgun, some C4, and whatnot. On page 198, finally, we get the biker-action onslaught Larkin’s spash painting promised us. Well, sort of. Chris hops on her bike and starts blasting away, having set some C4 to blow up that van as a diversion. But it’s not a full-on massacre; Chris just takes on a few bikers, as well of course as Rock and Apeman, and that’s that. We learn at novel’s end that Chris is so rattled from taking these lives that she’s gonna need some time off – looks like it was permanent, as juding from a perusal of the contents of the next three volumes, it doesn’t appear that Chris Amado is featured in any of them.
*Years ago when I was researching this series I discovered that Krauzer had actually written a seventh volume, which was never published. The manuscript is currently held, along with the rest of Krauzer’s papers (he passed away in 2009), at the University of Montana. And, for a mere 25 cents a page, they’ll be happy to send you a PDF of this (apparently untitled) manuscript, which they told me runs to 200 pages. Unless my math fails me, that would be a total of fifty dollars! Too rich for my blood, and I wasn’t that crazy about Hell On Wheels, but if there are any die-hard Dennison’s War fans out there who have been clamoring these past decades for another volume of the series, you know where to find it…