The Spy In Bangkok, by Bill S. Ballinger
December, 1965 Signet Books
The third volume of Joaquin Hawks is an exercise in patience, a galacially-paced “thriller” in which hardly anything at all happens. When you consider that the book is 142 pages of incredibly small, dense print, this makes for one hell of an uphill struggle for the reader – unless that is you want to read an interminable travelogue about Thailand, circa 1965. While the previous two volumes were methodically-paced at best, this one makes them seem like rollercoaster thrill-rides.
It starts off memorably, at least; Ballinger dispenses with the formula of the previous two books, of “intrepid agent” Joaquin Hawks (codename “Swinger!!) getting briefed by his CIA boss on the latest assignent. Ballinger instead starts the book with a sort of “cold open:” Hawks, sitting in some desolate jail on an Indonesian island, awaiting his execution. It won’t be for many pages until we even learn why Hawks is here, but ultimately we’ll find out that his assignment has him trailing US millionaire Eli Turlock, who is plying across the Pacific in his large yacht, perhaps to sell some old atomic warheads to the Reds.
But we don’t know any of that for the time being. Ballinger throws us in cold and we’re left trying to figure out what the hell is going on as Hawks wonders if his time is really up; in an effective scene he’s led out before the firing line. But he’s saved by the last-second arrival of his comrades, a group of “Moros,” ie Muslim pirates; they’re led by Dak, who drinks wine and calls it “grape juice” so as to fool Allah. Here Ballinger makes a curious mistake, claiming that Hawks first retained the services of Dak “several years ago” during another assignment here in the east, whereas the first volume stated, I’m pretty certain, that Hawks had never worked in Asia before.
Dak and his pirates live on a converted US PT boat, and the novel is filled with lots of “maritime adventures” stuff, as Hawks basically uses Dak as his chaffeur. Upon being freed Hawks directs them to Bangkok, where it appears Eli Turlock has temporarily docked. Hawks has chased him across the Pacific, trying to figure out his destination and where the atomic missiles are. Turlock made his fortunes after the war buying up military surplus, and now has a greater arsenal than many countries. He even retains two henchmen and a sexpot babe (Theda Ray), but while he sounds like your standard Bond villain, don’t get your hopes up; as ever Ballinger is unwilling to exploit his villains (or is just incapable of it), thus Eli Turlock remains off-page for the majority of the text – and indeed even meets his expected fate off-page.
The focus is instead on rampant travelogue and detail about Thailand, rather than the spy fiction you might be expecting. Also the chameleon-like gift for disguise Hawks has; upon arrival in Bangkok he assumes not one but two identities: a sandy-haired American professor who stays at a swank hotel, and a poor Mexican guitar player. The latter identity is practically thrust on us with no setup or explanation; only later do we understand that Hawks has opted for this guise because he’s learned that Turlock frequents one particular nightclub in Bangkok; otherwise he’s always on his yacht. So the “Mexican guitar player” identity is to give Hawks a cover for being in this club.
Really though it’s just a means to an end – namely, material that Ballinger can pad out the pages with. Indeed, this ruse leads to a major early subplot (that ultimately goes nowhere); Hawks gets the guitar-playing job at the club because the sexy Eurasian dancer there, Maggi, takes a shine to him. She invites him back to her place and even asks him to live with her, mostly so as to ward off the advances of a local Chinese stalker. Hawks goes along with it, of course having the (off-page) sex with Maggi the genre demands. But man this stuff has nothing to do with anything; lots of tedious description of Maggi’s apartment and her life, culminating in a brutal scuffle with the Chinese stalker and his pal. Even the end of the subplot is clumsy; Hawks’s guise is compromised, and last he sees Maggi she thinks he’s being taken off to be arrested. Instead Hawks gets the drop on the cops and escapes.
Hawks has already compromised his disguise in another fashion; the nightclub band has been invited to perform at a party on Turlock’s yacht, and Hawks uses the opportunity to snoop around. He discovers the mold of an ancient Chinese cannon in a locked storage area, but no missiles. He’s discovered snooping and beats up the guy who found him, after which upon his arrival at Maggi’s place he gets in the fight with the Chinese stalker and the cops. So his cover is doubly blown on the same night, and what’s more he learns next morning that Turlock’s yacht has left port, no doubt because Turlock realizes someone is snooping on him. As fr that cannon mold, gradually we’ll learn that Turlock has used it to create fake antique cannons which really disguise the gold he’s been paid for the atomic missiles.
We come now to the most grueling part of the novel; pages 71-89 are comrpised of an endless trek Hawks makes across Thailand, trying to get to the next dock not too long after Turlock will. Boy does it go on and on, just copious, overwhelming description of flora, fauna, and various peasants and farmers Hawks encounters. This sort of stuff occurs throughout the novel; when Hawks gets to his destination, which turns out to be a little island wholly owned by Turlock himself, he scuba dives in the ocean to figure out what Turlock’s hidden down there. Even in this part, which should be tense and dramatic, we get several paragraphs about the various fish and reefs Hawks sees underwater. I mean the book is almost deadening in how static it is.
Joaquin Hawks is constantly coming up with convoluted plans, and here he hires the services of corrupt local cop Racon, telling him to round up a few thugs. The plan is to hijack Turlock’s yacht in the dead of night. Hawks has reservations about Racon from the beginning, but decides to go through with it; unsurprisingly, Racon doesn’t follow orders and attacks the yacht before he’s supposed to. This leads to what will turn out to be the “climactic action scene,” as Hawks grabs a .45 revolver and leads Dak and crew on an assault; Hawks only kills one guy here, one of Turlock’s two henchmen. The fight’s already ended, for the most part, and arriving on the yacht Hawks finds that Eli Turlock is dead, killed by an increasingly-crazy Racon.
So basically, we’ve just read like several pages of planning on this whole hijack scenario, and none of it even happens. Racon goes rogue just as Hawks figured he would, but at least we get another memorable appearance of Hawks’s belt buckle gun. Saving Theda Ray from the yacht – the clear implication that she’ll be Hawks’s next sexual conquest, shortly after novel’s end – Hawks next aims to take out the Chinese junk which is carrying the missiles; it seems that Turlock sold the atomic weapons to North Korea, as that’s where the junk hails from.
The cover incident occurs on page 134, just as depicted; Hawks gears up and swims across the murky depths to plant a few bombs on the junk. Speaking of which, I think this volume has the best cover of the series; I just wish the contents of the book lived up to it. But Hawks plants his bombs and then the finale continues on the bland vibe with Hawks waiting on Dak’s boat for the junk to explode, after which he sends a few messages to his CIA control via shortwave radio. And mercifully we come to the end of this staggeringly-boring novel.
I think I’m starting to see why Joaquin Hawks only lasted five volumes; while Ballinger’s writing is good, he really needs to cut back on the arbitrary travelogue stuff and feature some actual pulp espionage thrills. Because I’ve gotta say, such thrills are few and far between in this series in general and The Spy In Bangkok in particular.