The Big Brain #2: The Beelzebub Business, by Gary Brandner
July, 1975 Zebra Books
I enjoyed this second volume of The Big Brain more than the first one. Gary Brandner again turns in a tale that has more in common with private eye fiction than men’s adventure, given that it’s a sort of slow-moving yarn with lots of dialog and scene-setting. But he peppers it with enough paranormal stuff and Satanic sleaze that it just comes off a lot more entertaining that The Aardvark Affair.
It’s sometime after that first adventure and Colin “The Big Brain” Garrett is back in California, hanging out with his girlfriend Fran. Not that this will prevent Garrett from hooking up with two other babes in the course of this novel; Fran is off-page for the duration, only appearing here in the opening chapters. Garrett is concerned over her safety, after she almost got killed trying to help him last time around, and demands she stay behind. Our hero is called in once again by his old Army colonel, Jefferson Judd, now head of strictly off-the-books spy outfit Agency Zero.
But even Garrett has a hard time understanding why Judd wants him. The case doesn’t really sound like something that needs the Big Brain: Darrell York, son of one of Judd’s old friends, has a job on the unofficial foreign relations committee that’s run by a guy named Alec Danneman, who got the gig because he’s been a longtime friend of the current President. Despite his lack of a political past, Danneman’s actually gotten a lot done in Washington, and thus he’s made a lot of enemies among the political hacks.
However, York claims that Danneman has been acting weird lately, and the concern is that Danneman’s about to head to Taiwan to help prevent the nuclear war that’s about to break out between that country and China. Brandner tries to pull us in with an opening chapter that lets us know something weird is going on, after all – we witness an unnamed man in a Satanic temple, where he receives orders from a guy wearing a goat mask and then has sex with two women, one a redhead and the other a black woman (both of whom first engage in a little lesbian shenanigans for his viewing pleasure!). Brandner by the way isn’t very explicit, but it’s all a bit more risque than the previous volume. After which the person, armed with a knife, heads out onto the streets of DC to kill in the name of Beelzebub…
But Brandner really page-fills with what amounts to lots of red herrings. It’s more so in the “political thriller” vein instead of the “Satanic sleaze” we might want, as Garrett, who is tasked by Judd to figure out what if anything is going on with Danneman, goes around the political circuits and hobknobs with various VIPs. Along the way Judd sets him up with a partner, a fellow Agency Zero agent, and of course it’s a sexy young babe: Trudi McKenzie, who is written in a way that would send modern feminists into paroxysms of rage. She basically throws herself at Judd, pouts when he gives her the cold shoulder (he’s determined not to mix work with pleasure, given how Fran was almost raped and killed last time), and goes out of her way to get him to notice her.
Mostly though it’s Garrett meeting this or that political bigshot, some of them on the right, some of them on the left, all of them enemies of Alec Danneman, who by the way is described as looking like Albert Einstein but somehow is very successful with the ladies. Things pick up a bit when Trudi, who works at the State Department officially (all Agency Zero agents are only part-time as a cost-saving measure!), takes Garrett to a party at socialite Bebe Schuyler’s place; all the major characters converge there, with the addition of the femme fatale of the piece: a six-foot beauty with “blue-black” hair and a body that is “beautifully and generously proportioned.” Her name is Liana Wolfe and she is a self-proclaimed witch who runs the Satanic-themed Beelzebub Club.
Garrett makes a beeline for her (much to a still-pouting Trudi’s dismay) and sets a date; his research proves that the Beelzebub Club might have something to do with things, as we already know that Danneman is a member. And also we already know Danneman is under Satanic mind-control, as we watch him murder Darrell York. But this only serves to set up more padding from Brandner, as we readers already know Danneman was the killer, yet we still must read many, many pages of Garrett and Judd trying to figure out who killed poor Darrell – Garrett of course doubting the words of a hoodlum who claims to have done it, as Garrett (correctly) detects some brainwashing at work.
Speaking of which, “The Big Brain” is less a brainiac this time around, and more of a supernatural sort along the lines of the protagonist of The Mind Masters, at least in how he can read minds. What I mean to say is, rather than just expositing reams of data on this or that like a true smarty pants, Garrett is also capable of “probing” the minds of people, to “penetrate” thoughts like the Shadow or something. He can even instill thoughts into the brains of weak-minded people. All of this lends the book more of a paranormal bent than I recall there being in the first volume.
Club Beelzebub looks like “Hell as it might have been designed by Walt Disney;” it’s a tacky-sounding place with red carpet and black candles, with a fireplace that emits wailing sounds, as if of the sufferers in hell. But it’s a big hit with the DC circuit, and rumors have it that privileged members get to take part in Satanic orgies in the back room. Not that Garrett has any concerns on that score – after a single drink with Liana and some flirtatious banter, she invites him up to her swanky room above the club. As mentioned, The Beelzebub Business is a bit more risque than its predecessor – what I mean to say is, the Big Brain gets laid this time, folks.
“They made love wildly, exultantly, with a fierce joy in their sensuality,” is about the extent of it, but we do get lots of mentions of Liana’s “nipples,” in particular one head-scratcher of a note that, when she later wears a skimpy gown, her nips make “dollar-size” protrusions in the fabric. Boy, those must be some wide nipples! Anyway a groovy time is had by all, but Garrett still suspects Liana. After the guy who claims he killed Darrell York commits suicide (with poisoned chewing gum!), she becomes the only suspect our hero still has.
This leads to more red herring-chasing, as Garrett heads to San Francisco to look into the members of Liana’s old coven. Lots of padding here, and the shame of it is that Brandner would’ve been better-suited to just feature more stuff with Liana herself, as she’s by far the most interesting character in the novel. But she stays off-page until the very end, with Garrett again in private eye mode, going around and asking old coven members about her. Here follows the novel’s first “action scene,” as Garrett is knocked out by a pair of hoods and taken off to be killed. Here too we see the series’s new paranormal bent at play, as the Big Brain implants various thoughts into the weak minds of his captors, causing them to freak out over various things; he also manages to appropriate their guns and kill them both.
Brandner keeps things going in the paranormal direction into the climax; after giving in to Trudi’s romantic pleas, Garrett goes out to dinner with her and back to her place for a bit of casual screwin’, only to do a cursory “probing” of the girl’s mind and discover the same hidden barrier he’s detected in the other brainwashed members of the Beelzebub Club. Sure enough, she goes nuts and comes at him with a knife. Trudi safely in a sanitarium, Garrett next visits Liana again in her swank penthouse above the Club, where despite himself he’s drugged and put in the presence of Beelzebub, that goat-headed demon we saw in the first chapter.
It’s a veritable war of the brains as Garrett uses his mental powers to offset the brainwashing of the drugs and the supernatural demands of Beelzebub, who turns out to be one of the minor characters we met earlier in the book. Brandner skirts straight-up paranormal action with it seeming that Garrett kills the guy with the power of his mind, only to reveal that it was actually a knife-wielding Alec Danneman, suddenly freed of his mental yoke thanks to Beelzebub’s being distracted while fighting with Garrett. As for Liana, she’s gone and doesn’t appear again, which is a shame; we get a tepid wrap-up courtesy Garrett that Liana was “innocent” of what really went on in the Club, and that she’ll no doubt get a lawyer who will arrange an all-male jury who will promptly acquit her of all charges!
Once again I have to take a moment to discuss the cover, which like the first one misrepresents the series protagonist as a freak with his brain outside of his skull. One suspects the artist got his wires crossed; note how the Big Brain is clutching that knife in a pose that’s more “psycho killer” than “action protagonist.” Zebra Books must’ve figured out they were sending the wrong message with these covers, as the next volume, Agency Zero, completely removes any depiction of the Big Brain and goes in a different direction. However that one was to be the last in the series, so perhaps the damage had been done…