Monday, July 16, 2018

The Iceman #2: The Golden Shaft

The Iceman #2: The Golden Shaft, by Joseph Nazel
March, 1974  Holloway House

Has it really been eight years since I read the first volume  of Iceman? Judging from my review, I didn’t much like it, but I bet if I were to read it again I’d enjoy it more. Eight years of reading trash pretty much rots your brain, folks, so whereas I was apparently expecting something more “literary” back in 2010, these days I’d probably just be content to read all the copious descriptions of guts getting blown out.

Well anyway I didn’t even realize I had this second volume. I knew I had a couple of the later ones, thus it was a pleasure to discover The Golden Shaft sitting in the same box as the rest of them. It seemed then only mere logic that I read this volume next, having previously read the first volume. Sorry, no idea where I was going with that. To cut to the chase, I actually enjoyed this one – as with Billion Dollar Death, it’s basically full-on Blaxploitation, lacking only a suitable soundtrack.

Speaking of that previous book, too-cool-for-words Henry Highland West, aka the Iceman, often relfects back on the incidents which occurred therein, “some time ago.” We’re first treated to an overlong prologue which reminds us who Iceman is, how he got his start, how he moved to his high-tech casino-fortress-cathouse, the Oasis, in the desert outside Vegas, complete with a massive computer in the bowls of the place that keeps Iceman abreast of what’s going on in the outside world. As ever he’s accompanied by his consorts Kim (Chinese) and Solema (African), and his favorite color is powder blue, so all his various Adventure Joe-like accessories are colored thusly: his dirt bike, his helicopter, his dirt buggy.

We start right in on the action, as a pack of bikers bully an old gold prospector, ultimately blowing him away. But this old prospector happens to be a friend of Iceman’s, and indeed all this is happening not too far from the Oasis. Not only that, but Iceman happens to be dirt-biking with Kim and Solema, and he heads off to see what the hell’s goin’ on. Probably the Man, fool! Just kidding; the spirit of these books is contagious. Anyway Iceman busts out his .44 automatic and starts gunning down biker scum – Nazel as ever delivers good gore, with brains blown out and the like. Iceman’s women all carry .38s in their knee-high leather boots, by the way, so Solema also guns down some biker creeps. 

Iceman’s been burning for some action, so he sees this as a chance to let it all hang out, baby. Eventually this puts him on the track of a wealthy enterprenneur named Johns and a sadistic South African mercenary Johns employs named Martin. These two did in fact hire the bikers, as it turns out Dipper, Iceman’s prospector friend, had discovered gold on Iceman’s land, and was hiding it from Iceman; Johns wants to buy the land, and still posing as just a regular businessman he visits the Oasis with Martin in tow. True to this subgenre, the racial invective runs rampant as racist Martin leers at the women and wants to tame the black ones.

Nazel does have fun with it, like when Iceman, who instantly detects the true motive of these two, plays up to their racist attitudes, acting as if he’s having a hard time reading the funnies in the newspaper. In truth though Iceman, you of course know, is not only street-wise but brilliant, thus he has these two fools under his thumb in no time. Nazel pads a lot of pages with cutovers to the two villains, plotting and bickering, the latter because Johns is against killing to get their way. Martin though is the cliched evil white villain mandatory of the Blaxploitation genre; the fact that he comes from a country in which whites rule the blacks is often mentioned.

Last time one of Iceman’s hooker-babes was killed in the action, something Iceman reflects upon quite often – indeed, much of the too-long word count is given over to arbitrary reflections on the previous book. But while at the Oasis Martin really has his depraved eye on Brenda, a black babe who decides to do her own work when she finds out that Iceman wants to know what Martin and Johns are up to. She figures maybe she can take the bastard up on his sleazy offer to come visit him, and get some intel while he’s humping her. What’s bizarre though is that Martin, despite wanting her badly, instead goes crazy and accuses Brenda of spying for Iceman, eventually killing her in a bloody struggle. In other words, no sex, nor are there any sex scenes featuring Iceman.

For yes, once again, Joseph Nazel has taken a novel about a pimp who runs a high-tech cathouse filled with ultra-hot fillies…and does not feature a single sex scene!! I mean where’s the sex?? It’s like that Living Color skit with Sam Kinison in hell: “Where’s Hitler??!!!”

Cut to Iceman and Solema in Iceman’s blue dune buggy, heading for Dipper’s shack. Here Iceman discovers that the old prospector was ripping him off (damn white folk!), but also that old Dipper apparently regreted his duplicity and was about to come clean with Iceman. But then Iceman and Solema are ambushed by Martin and forces; Iceman seeks cover in an old mine, where he gets some dynamite. This he puts to use pronto, blowing up Johns’s home, anticlimactically killing off one of the main villains off-page. Martin meanwhile heads home to South Africa, figuring the game is up here in America.

Little does Martin know how determined Iceman can be. He’s going to South Africa to kill the mofo. Along comes Christmas Tree, Iceman’s colorfully-attired pimp pal who appeared in the previous volume. Together they, with ever-present Solema and Kim, board Iceman’s private plane and head for South Africa. Nazel delivers a brief shoutut to the previous book when the four stop over in the fictional African kingdom that was home to the diplomat almost assassinated in the previous volume; here Iceman feels he’s “home,” “among his people.”

Nazel doesn’t belabor the point when the four fly into South Africa; Iceman basically points the plane in the direction of the mine Martin’s providing security for, they land, and they proceed to kill whitey. Iceman, surprisingly, is captured, but the other three come to the rescue. It must be said that New York City pimp Christmas Tree takes quite easily to chopping off heads with a machete. And Nazel makes a hilarious miss in this same scene; he introduces the fact that Kim is armed with nunchucks, but doesn’t have her do anything – the action is solely handled by Christmas Tree and Solema. 

Iceman of course promptly frees himself, leading to an overdone finale in which Martin runs away into the nearby mine, and Iceman follows him into the total darkness of the place. He ends up kicking the guy’s ass and leaving him to die in a cave-in. And that’s all she wrote for The Golden Shaft; Iceman heads on back to the Oasis to his loyal fillies, and they’re all a family again.

All told I found this one pretty entertaining, and also Iceman has a couple bad-ass lines throughout, but given that he usually refers to himself via the dreaded N-word, I fear if I quoted any of them Google would probably shut down the blog.  

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dirty Harry #6: City Of Blood

Dirty Harry #6: City Of Blood, by Dane Hartman
May, 1982  Warner Books

Here’s another series I’ve been meaning to get to. I’ve also never gotten around to collecting all twelve of the volumes in the series, and doubtful if I will, for Dirty Harry is one of those series that’s priced too high on the used books marketplace…I’ve seen some of these offered at insane prices. But anyway this was another Warner Books “Men Of Action” title, and as with Ninja Master Ric Meyers  was one of the writers, though he didn’t write this one.

As typical with this line, it’s uncertain who other than Meyers wrote what. My hunch is that Stephen Smoke, who reportedly wrote Ninja Master #1: Vengeance Is His, wrote this book. Like Vengeance Is His, City Of Blood is saddled with a bland, boring protagonist, bland, boring prose, and overall is quite lifeless, save for a few unexpected moments of sadism; it’s also written in a needlessly-convoluted style, as if the author is constantly tripping over himself. The writing is the definition of perfunctory, coming off with a sort of passive style that is wholly unacceptable for this genre, as I’ll show in an excerpt below.

And yes, you read that right – Dirty Harry is bland in this novel. Dirty Harry! It takes a writer of a certain caliber to make the most famous tough-ass cop of all bland, but Smoke, if indeed it be he, has done it. The Harry of the movies has been replaced by just your average everyday cop; we’re told that Harry’s boss, Lt. Drexler, can’t stand Harry for all his rule-breaking and bad-assery, but it’s very much a case of tell not show. Harry in fact is even polite not only to witnesses and potential suspects, but even to the latest partner he’s been saddled with. As Marty McKee notes, it seems evident that this ghostwriter had never actually seen a Dirty Harry movie.

The unfortunate thing is that City Of Blood is one of the sicker men’s adventure novels I’ve read, but then that seems to have been a common thread in all the Men Of Action books; take for example Ninja Master #6, which seemed to relish in describing the gruesome murders of children. This book features a “sex killer,” per the hypberbolic back cover copy, one who likes to decapitate his victims after engaging them in graphically-described sex scenes. This stuff is as lurid as the men’s adventure novels of the previous decade (it seems to me that the genre, for the most part, was a bit sanitized in the ‘80s, at least in regards to the perverted stuff, replacing regular old porn with gun-porn).

But if only we had a suitably deranged protagonist to navigate us through this sleaze! Instead, City Of Blood is like, I don’t know, Bronson: Blind Rage if it had starred Killinger. The novel is also poorly plotted, jamming two separate subplots in a wild disregard for narrative construction. Okay, we open with one of those sick-o sequences, where “Teddy” avidly screws a pair of high-class hookers in a sleazy San Francisco hotel, then hacks them up into hamburger. From this to Dirty Harry Callahan, called onto the scene. But instead of chasing down this killer, Harry is instead ordered to track down another serial killer: the Mission Street Knifer, who has murdered sundry bums and thus far eluded capture. 

How tracking one serial killer will put Harry on the trail of another serial killer is something the ghostwriter hopes we won’t dwell upon too much. Anyway, Drexler sets Harry up with a new partner, much to Harry’s chagrin. This is Drake Owens, actor turned cop(!); he carries a “.356 Magnum.” (Well, the novel is fiction.) The ghostwriter doesn’t really articulate it, but Owens seems to get the gig due to his disguise abilities; much like the short-lived later men’s adventure series Decoy (not to be confused with the ‘70s Decoy), Owens can capably change his whole being through costuming and makeup and etc, and thus poses as a bum on loooong stakeouts in the hopes of baiting the Knifer.

In another parallel to Vengeance Is His, this ghostwriter seems to just want to turn out a generic, soapy novel about ritzy people doing ritzy things, and doesn’t want to bother with the blood and thunder expected of the genre. To wit, we have parts where Dirty Harry visits Drake and his wife at their home, accepting their offer of a homecooked dinner, and there’s even an overlong visit to the set of a movie, where Drake’s wife works as a seamstress or somesuch. However this does ultimately have something to do with the plot, as it’s her expertise which figures out the clothing on the hookers murdered in the opening section (unidentified due to their missing heads) came from expensive boutiques – a hunch that results in the humorous development of Harry visiting expensive clothing stores. However it must be stated that the author again fails to capture the dark comedy that would naturally ensue were such a scene to ever feature in one of the films.

The Mission Street Knifer subplot is not only ridiculous but poorly handled. After lots of padding with Drake as a bum and Harry on stakeout, it finally leads up to an endless part where, on Halloween night, Drake gets a hunch that this tall, mysterious figure dressed like the Grim Reaper (complete with a skull mask) might be the Knifer. And he just follows after him…and follows after him…and on and on. I forgot to mention, there are huge chunks of City Of Blood where Dirty Harry just disappears, and Drake Owens becomes the hero. But this guy is in fact the Knifer, and we do at least get a memorable climax, with the massive, robed figure seemingly impervious to bullets – even those fired by Harry’s infamous .44 Magnum.

Drake is nearly killed in the fight, and we thereafter have parts where Dirty Harry sits around and worries about him. I’ll just let that statement speak for itself; it pretty much says all there is to say about this novel’s handling of the character.

Now as for the main plot, “Teddy” continues to screw and kill with aplomb, including another sleazy bit where he goes to a club with his latest babe, and hacks her up while she’s having sex with some other dude. Now, in this particular ghostwriter’s usual penchant for sloppy editing, early in the book Harry and Drake are called onto the scene of some random shooting, an action bit that sees them taking out terrorists who are gunning for wealthy CEO William Maxim-Davis outside his corporate headquarters. This inrecibly lazy, coincidental plotting serves to bring Maxim-Davis into the plot, and Harry meets with him occasionally while tracking leads, and well…guess who Teddy turns out to be. 

Action is only infrequent, always bloodless (save for Teddy’s gruesome kills), and usually arbitrary, like when researching leads Harry and Drake stay with the uncle of Drake’s wife, and an assassin tries to take them out in the middle of the night. Unbelievably, Drake actually survives the novel, though the poor uncle is blown away. This bit takes us into the climax, which is straight out of a cliffhanger serial; Harry confronts Maxim-Davis in his office, and with the push of a button on his desk the CEO opens up secret passageways into his office, and in come a couple dudes toting guns! Off Harry’s taken in the bastard’s limo, a henchman pointing a gun at his head, when those same terrorists from early on attack again. But even here in this climactic action scene the prose is bland and lifeless:

[The guns held by Davis’s henchmen] contained a clip of eight rounds each, which would mean that before Harry could get out his own weapon and do much of anything with it, he would very likely find his body riddled with sixteen rounds. 

This prospect did not strike him as a very pleasing one, and, even as he cursed himself for blundering into Davis’s trap he tossed aside his .44, complying with the order Davis had just given him, almost casually, for he was still working on his contracts, signing his name over and over again as though he wanted to prove just how meaningless he had ever viewed the threat that Harry had posed. 

Harry remained seated, saying nothing – what was there to say with two guns targeted at your head? – waiting for Davis to conclude his business and get to the point which, he supposed glumly, was his imminent execution.

Folks, don’t write your action novels like this. Especially don’t write a Dirty Harry novel like this.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Double Identity (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #22)

Double Identity, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967

I didn’t have big expectations for this volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster, yet another courtesy Manning Lee Stokes; I mean the whole “evil twin of the hero” concept has never much appealed to me. But man, it turned out to be one of my favorites yet, featuring a wild opening half that comes off like a men’s adventure version of Lost Horizon, only instead of a monastery of immortal Chinese monks it’s a monastery of horny Chinese women. And the less appealing material, ie the whole “evil Nick Carter” plot, doesn’t really come up until later on.

We start off with perhaps the longest opening section I’ve yet read in a Stokes installment, as the head of Chinese intelligence shows off his prize “Turtle” (aka a US soldier captured in the Korean war and brainwashed) to none other than Chairman Mao and his son. “Turtle Nine” has had extensive plastic surgery so that he looks identical to infamous AXE agent Nick Carter, who apparently is so popular with the Commie powers that they know everything about him, even down to the fact that he wears “crisp linen” boxers. This brainwashed American now thinks he is Nick, living in a New York penthouse built exactly like the real Nick’s, sleeping with a bunch of gals, and armed with Nick’s customary trio of weapons.

Only, in one of those goofy Stokes touches I love so much, the “penthouse” is really a set in Chinese intelligence HQ, and Mao and the others secretly watch from above, looking through a mirrored floor at the action below. They watch as the fake Nick first gets busy with a hot Asian babe, really a hooker hired for the job and to be disposed of later. Then some dudes come in to kill him and the “Turtle” springs to action, moving as fast and fierce as the real Nick Carter. Meanwhile the hooker’s accidentally killed in the melee. Chairman Mao (don’t expect to make it with anyone if you go carrying pictures of this guy, by the way) is satisfied with the performance and sez it’s time for Operation Whatever to commence, blah blah blah.

So just as we’re preparing to settle in for the long haul of a turgid “Nick Carter vs Nick Carter” scenario…Stokes drops us into the middle of snowswept Tibet as the real Nick Carter makes his way to a forbidden lamasery populated by horny Chinese babes(!?). Indeed, so horny that they’re known to screw men to death. Nick thinks this sounds like paradise, but according to Hafed, boss of the sherpas leading Killmaster through this rough terrain, most men avoid the place, particularly married ones like Hafed’s sherpas. Hafed himself isn’t married, though, and he shares Nick’s sentiments. 

Nick’s been sent here due to the recent murder of an AXE agent who was based out of Tibet – an AXE agent killed by Nick Carter! So, in the usual goofy-but-cool manner of these books, only the real Nick Carter can handle this problem. He’s to head to the monastery, known as the Lamasery of the She-Devils, and meet up with the high priestess of the place, the wonderfully-named Dyla Lotti. The high priestess herself is an AXE agent, and what’s more she met the fake Nick Carter as he passed through, thus will be able to provide the real Nick with pertinent info about his doppleganger. 

Stokes doesn’t swindle us when we get to the lamasery, save for the strange note that the hot Chinese babes all have shaved heads. So it’s like a monastery filled with Chinese Sinead O’Connors. If that’s your thing, great! Anyway at this point Nick is out of it, and this is one of the few instances in a Stokes joint where superheroic Nick Carter is out of sorts…suffering from the exposure to high altitudes on such short notice (literally called out of bed by boss Hawk, we’re informed via brief backstory), Nick is nearly at death’s door.

Nick wakes up in the monastery, having passed out on the long flight of stairs leading to the place; he’s out of his mind on “sanga root,” which he’s told is for his illness. But it really just makes him high and horny. He’s kept alone, only tended to by a few of the older temple women. When he finally is granted an audience with the high priestess, it is one of those moments Manning Lee Stokes does so well – full-on pulp with a sort of Conan fantasy vibe. Indeed this entire opening sequence in the Lamasery of the She-Devils is almost a trial run for Stokes’s later work on Richard Blade. The same vibe, even down to the “exotic Oriental” bent Stokes captures here so well.

Dyla Lotti comes into Nick’s chamber alone, appearing from behind a statue, wearing a robe and a demon mask. It’s all just so weird and wild, particularly given that Nick’s high as a kite and while part of him knows it’s all a put-on, another part keeps wondering if he’s really talking to a demoness. Dyla answers a few questions about the fake Nick, but needs to leave for temple duties – strange, then, that Stokes immediately cuts to the next chapter, with Dyla returning to Nick’s chamber. Why’d he even have to fool around with her leaving? Anyway I digress. Nick, due to the sanga and the hot bod he can detect beneath that robe of Dyla’s, is “immensely ready for the physical act of love.”

The high priestess unveils herself and of course she’s a hotstuff Chinese babe, plus she has long black hair, so at least she isn’t bald. Plus she’s got a brick shithouse bod. Who would’ve expected otherwise? It gets even more Richard Blade esque as the two get down to business in the ancient chamber while incense sticks burn all around them. But Dyla reminds Nick – a bit too late, I might add – that she’s taken a vow of virginity, so can’t have full-on sex. Bummer! However, due to the “kama sutra,” she knows how to do other stuff…stuff that will still take Nick to “nirvana.” Stokes doesn’t go full sleaze here, but it’s raunchy enough. Even raunchier is the very next sequence, in which Nick gets to satiate himself in full, engaging in a day(s) long orgy with a trio of temple babes. 

Nick basically becomes a proto-hippie here, which was pretty cool to see in a Stokes novel, as typically his characters are paragons of macho posturing. All our Killmaster wants to do is hit the sanga and bang the three temple broads; even when the gals finally leave and Hafed comes in, having to smack Nick out of his stupor, he’s still out of sorts. Hafed you see has been banging some temple babes of his own, but got some free time and went looking around and has discovered some weird, wild stuff, to quote my man Johnny Carson.

Hafed leads a dazed Nick into a hidden chamber deep in the temple – and there, tossed in a closet, is the corpse of the real Dyla Lotti, who turns out to have been an old lady. Hafed’s heard talk from the sisters that, a bit ago, a hot young half-Chinese lady named Yang Kwei arrived at the temple and took over duties, and surely it is she Nick just engaged in naughtiness with, only pretending to be Dyla Lotti. Thus, Nick figures, the lady is a Chinese spy and was trying to stall him. Sure enough, Chinese soldiers are on the way.

When the two get hold of the fake Dyla Lotti, Hafed again proves his sidekick prowess by taking over the job of torturing her, even though Nick suspects she’s already told them everything she knows. Regardless, Hafed puts a fire-heated blade on her boob, burning off a nipple. Nick is actually out of sorts even here; whereas Stokes’s Killmaster can be more brutal than most heroes – let’s recall when he shot and killed an unarmed (and naked) woman – here he actually feels bad for the fake Dyla, and regrets her torture. Plus he decides not to kill her; Hafed stuffs her into the closet she herself stashed the corpse of the real Dyla Lotti.

Hafed throughout displays almost magical powers, indeed coming off as more resourceful than Nick himself. For this transgression he suffers the expected fate, a casualty of the mortars Chinese soldiers fire at them as he and Nick make their escape from the monastery. After this, sadly, Double Identity loses some headway. Nick’s now in Karachi, where the fake Dyla said the fake Nick was headed; the bastard has already killed another rep of the US government. It gradually develops that the fake Nick Carter’s mission is to jinx the ceasefire between Pakistan and India, hopefully bringing the US and Russia into the crisis or somesuch. Why it would take a fake Nick Carter – and only a fake Nick Carter – to do such a thing is something Stokes doesn’t want us to dwell on.

Speaking of hippies, Nick sort of retains the services of one, though he isn’t technically referred to as such. His name’s Bannion, a former news reporter who came to Karachi ten years ago, got drunk, and “has been drunk ever since.” Now he lives here, mostly hanging out in bars, and has a native wife and a bunch of kids – we’re often reminded that his wife is fat “from having so many kids.” Nick needs this guy because he can speak the local dialects, or something. We get back to the pulp stuff when Nick investigates the house of the murdered government agent and finds a poisonous snake hidden in a drawer of his desk.

Actually this part is pretty goofy, in that Nick finally confronts the fake Nick, but it happens in a pitch-black room and throughout Nick can’t tell if the other Nick is even there. It just goes on and on past the point of absurdity, indeed just trampling right over it into parody, like something out of Mad’s “Spy vs Spy.” And when I say it goes on and on, I mean it – Nick, “getting very near to panic,” crawling around the dark room, desperately searching for his enemy whom he’s certain is there but can’t find, even with the humorous moment of Nick slashing his knife beneath the bed in the room but hitting nothing. But there’s a corpse on the bed, a just-killed maid or something…and the fake Nick’s hiding beneath her, in a section carved out of the matress, breathing through an oxygen mask!

The two have a quick scuffle…we’re informed the real Nick is slightly stronger, though the fake Nick is just as brutal. He gets hurt and runs away, and the real Nick vows to kill him. I’ve mentioned before how one of the great things about Stokes is there’s none of the modern chickified sentiments of today…I mean, the fake Nick, we’ll recall, is a captured US soldier who has been brainwashed. In other words he’s a victim, despite his evil deeds. In the chickified fiction of today, where “emotional content” is all that matters, Nick would go out of his way to “save” the fake Nick, to bring him back to who he once was. Not in Stokes. Nope, Nick just wants to kill the motherfucker.

The final section sees Nick and Bannion going up the Indus, following a gruesome trail of the mutilated corpses of Pakistani soldiers, buried to the neck with their eyelids lopped off and little taunting notes from the fake Nick beside them. It develops that the fake Nick’s intent – ie the Chicom plot – is to arm a group of radical Muslims and get them to attack Pakistani soldiers, making it look like Indian soldiers did it, thus setting off the war between the two countries once more. In Peshawar things come to a head – Nick spys the fake Nick, meeting up with a lovely young blonde American babe, who we know from the long opening chapter is a Chicom agent who works in the Peace Corps as her cover.

She is the fake Nick’s control, able to activate his brainwashed mind, and here Stokes eerily hits on topics that would have real-world ramifactions in a few years’s time, particularly the RFK assassination. And humorously, despite his realization that the fake Nick is hypnotized – something Nick deduces while his double and the American babe have sex in a car, Nick listening in on them – he still intends to kill him regardless. (AXE agents, we learn, can’t be hypnotized – a “rudimentary requirement for service.”) Anyway the control’s name is Beth Cravens, and if you figure the real Nick will be banging her soon, you are of course are spot-on. And, as you’ll also no doubt guess, she instantly realizes she’s just been screwed by the real Nick Carter, because this guy’s a helluva lot better in bed than the fake one is!

Stokes as ever throws all sentiments out the window – Nick knocks Beth out immediately after taking her to, uh, “nirvana,” and then he and the fake Nick get in a Mexican standoff; fake Nick shows up with a gun, using just-captured Bannion as a human body shield. Please skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers, but I just had to mention it because it’s another indication of how Stokes’s heroes are cut from a different cloth: Nick shoots through Bannion to kill the fake Nick, just unloading his Luger on Bannion’s chest! But at least he promises to send some money to the guy’s wife and kids! Jeez!

Anyway, Double Identity was one of my favorite Stokes installments yet, mostly due to the crazy opening half. After that things settle down to the usual turgid Stokes pace, but really I don’t mean that as a criticism. I like his style, and I like his brutal heroes. But one must admit the book is lacking in action…Killmaster doesn’t even kill anyone until the final quarter, and the only action scene we get is a brief sequence where he takes out some of those Muslim terrorists, using gas bomb Pierre on a few of them. One must also admit that Stokes seems a bit obsessed with the word “little,” which appears on practically every page.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Adrano For Hire #2: Kill The Hack!

Adrano For Hire #2: Kill The Hack!, by Michael Bradley
March, 1974  Warner Books

It’s been so long since I read the first volume of Adrano For Hire that I had to go back and read my review to familiarize myself with this short-lived series; I’d honestly forgotten pretty much everything about it, other than I hadn’t enjoyed that first installment very much. Sadly I must say the same about this second volume, again turned out by Gary Blumberg posing as “Michael Bradley.” Like the first one it is stuffed with too many characters, lacks much action or bite, and indeed even misses the sort of arrogant drive of the first volume, for this time “hero” Johnny Adrano is “for hire” to save his life, not for reasons of arrogance.

But to tell the truth, Adrano is sort of lost this time around. In my review of the first volume I compared this series to Narc, but a more apt comparison might be Mafia: Operation. Just like that four-volume series, Adrano For Hire is more of an ensemble piece, featuring too many criminal underworld types vying for the reader’s attention. But unlike Mafia: Operation, this series has a recurring character in titular Adrano, who as we’ll recall is a conceited young punk looking to use his fancy Ivory Tower college degree to strike it big in the world of the Mafia. In the first volume he successfully screwed over his old mobster pals, making a deal with an overseas heroin dealer.

It appears that this second volume opens up soon after the first volume – Adrano is holed up in some dive in New York after the fallout of an attempted hit in New Jersey a few hours before. The Mafia is after him for screwing them over, and in particular a capo named Steve Rizzo is out for his blood. (Any relation to Frank Rizzo??) We get lots of scenes of Rizzo screaming at fellow mobsters about getting Adrano. Meanwhile a hirsute freak by the name of Louis Cerelli – who by the way was castrated in Vietnam – is hiding way down in Mexico and pulling off contract kills. Nicknamed “The Hack,” Cerelli gets overly excited on his kills and is known for hacking and slashing his victims to bloody pieces.

These various plots unsteadily unite in a single thread in some of the more lazy plotting I’ve yet encountered; okay, first Rizzo wants Adrano dead, and he’s all fired up about it. But then Rizzo gets word that the Hack is operating down in Mexico – the novel opens with Cerelli killing an Indian anthropolgist, in a subplot which itself will lazily be threaded in – and abruptly Rizzo changes his focus: now he wants Cerelli dead. Why? Because many years ago Rizzo hired Cerelli to kill a rival capo, and Cerelli did the deed, but as was the Hack’s wont he also hacked up the busty babe the capo happened to be in bed with at the time – complete with lurid descriptions of her breasts being lopped off and the machete rammed up a certain part of her anatomy. Well, the babe in question happened to be Rizzo’s fiance(!?), so now the Hack Cerelli is #1 on Rizzo’s shit list. 

Here comes the lazy thread-combining: Rizzo decides to sent Adrano down to Mexico to kill Cerelli. Huh?? To this end he hires some black thugs to round up Adrano, who happens to be hiding out with an old Harvard pal named Arturo Zamora, who now works as a people’s lawyer in Harlem. Given the financial status of his clients, Zamora is poor, and thus had to represent criminals so as to get money for his brother, an anthropologist looking to work in Mexico. And yes, folks, you got it – the very same anthopologist who was killed by Cerelli in the opening pages! All the plot threads so lazily connected!

Now mind you folks, I’m informing you of all this due to the omniscient power of hindsight, because the honest fact of the matter is that, for a good fifty percent of Kill The Hack!, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Blumberg is a capable writer, but damn does he just drop you into the deep end and let you fend for yourself. Newly-introduced characters refer to other new characters in passing, or past events with little elaboration, and there’s hardly any setup or development of anything. But hey, at least the cover’s cool, and Adrano For Hire is similar to the Smuggler series in that the cover art is the best thing about it…and, also like the art on The Smuggler, you get double bang for your buck, with an additional painting on the back.

Well anyway since I’m in full admission mode, here’s another one – I’ve never been much interested in stories set in Mexico or stories about Mexican village life (save of course for One Hundred Years Of Solitude), which made Kill The Hack! even more of an unenjoyable read for me, as the second half occurs in, you guessed it, Mexico, deep in the jungle. I mean, unless it’s Predator we’re talking about, I’m just not interested, so sue me. But we’re very much on that tip here, with Mexican natives engaged in their own subplots…there’s some shit about up-and-comer Mexican crook Ramon, who hired Cerelli to kill Zamora (the anthropologist), because Zamora was screwing Ramon’s girlfriend Consuelo. And yep, if you didn’t noitce, this is the exact same plot as the Rizzo backstory. Ten points to Blumberg for ripping himself off in the same novel.

Adrano and Atruro Zamora (the lawyer, not the murdered anthropologist) are sent down to Mexico. They bicker and fight the whole way, and not in a fun Razoni and Jackson way. It gets to be annoying. Action is infrequent, and when it happens it’s over in flash, like when Adrano discovers he’s being followed by would-be assassins, ones hired by Cerelli (WTF? I mean Cerelli himself is an assassin, righ??). He guns ‘em down with his .38 and goes back to bitch at Zamora for bringing the villains onto their trail or something. Meanwhile we have more fussing between Ramon and Consuelo, and Cerelli sweating bullets because he realizes the Mafia, in particular Rizzo, has tracked him down.

The finale is almost maddeningly boring. The action having moved down to Veracruz, our characters engage in a loong standoff, Cerelli hiding in the jungle and waiting to take out our heroes. Meanwhile Consuelo is on her way down here, I guess because Blumberg feels he’s padded so many pages with her subplot that he should have her, you know, maybe be integral to the plot in some fashion. Well, she is…she sees Zamora, in particular how he’s identical to his murdered brother, and the two promptly fall in love. Meanwhile after a lot of “tension” Adrano’s able to get the drop on Cerelli and shoots him. That’s it.

This one was really a mess…just a long-simmer, disjointed affair with too many characters and too little “good stuff” to at least make it worth your while. Cerelli’s gruesome backstory and modus operandi are about the only memorable elements…I mean it’s like he just walked out of one of those sicko Men’s Detective Magazines of the day. But his lurid star is also tarnished by the general vibe of malaise which settles over the novel. Really hoping the next one is better.

Monday, July 2, 2018

See The Red Blood Run

See The Red Blood Run, by Niles N. Peebles
May, 1968  Pyramid Books

A “private cop” ventures into the underground world of LSD in this Pyramid PBO, which was the first of two books to feature P.I. Ross McKellar. About author Niles N. Peebles barely anything is known; the two McKellar novels are the only books published under his name, but after some digging I discovered that Peebles also ghostwrote a book that has become legendary with the Alcoholics Anonymous crowd: Dr. Bob And The Good Oldtimers (1980).

In true private eye fashion McKellar narrates the story for us; he’s New York City born and bred and operates out of Manhattan. He’s “close to forty years old” and is not married, though he was once – and has vowed never to be again. He doesn’t carry a gun and his sleuthing is carried out more so by following leads and visiting suspects; in other words, you won’t find any Mike Hammer action here. He’s also such a New Yorker that he’s never learned to drive, and he’s not too ashamed to admit it. He’s also more of a gentelman than you’d expect, given the genre, and for the most part just comes off like a regular guy.

The back cover copy oversells the lurid quotient of the book. Sad to say, there just isn’t much of it; McKellar does okay with the ladies but Peebles always cuts away from the sleaze. The back cover also overhypes the “psychedelic” nature of the book, in particular spotlighting a part where “the needle jabs in” and McKellar is dosed with LSD against his will. I’ve never heard of LSD being taken this way but what the hell. At any rate it sends him off on a “Love is Truth” sort of quest rather than any sort of lysergic hellhole nightmare, so even that part isn’t too lurid, more’s the friggin’ pity. 

McKellar is promptly hired by lovely, svelte Alexandra Justin, a high-class socialite currently engaged to Robbie Quigley, president of a local Anti-Vice union. I had some problems with all this…the whole Quigley-Alexandra relationship is hard to buy, and plus methinks Peebles could’ve given his hard-assed, anti-“filth” politician a tougher name than “Robbie.” But anyway the case Alexandra wants to hire McKellar for is this: Quigley’s wild child niece Lydia, whom Quigley has served as guardian for since Lydia’s parents died, has gone missing, last seen with the beatniks and hippies and other drug addicts in the gutter of the East Village.

Alexandra wants McKellar to find Lydia, bring her home, and keep it all out of the papers – it would be a political nightmare for it to be discovered that straight-shooter Quigley’s own niece is a doped-up hippie. McKellar takes the job, mostly because he’s also taken with Alexandra, and wonders often what she’s doing with a chump like Quigley. McKellar has heard of the man and doesn’t like him, though honestly McKellar comes off like such a straight-shooter himself that you wonder what his problem with the guy is. It would be one thing if McKellar himself was presented as a dopesmoking, acid-dropping PI (now there’s a novel!), but in truth he’s pretty bland.

Lydia has been hanging around a hippie named Muzzy, who fancied himself a psychedelic artist. Now both of them are missing, and McKellar gets leads on them from Leon, a fellow psychedelic artist. But when McKellar heads to the hovel Leon says the two were shacking up in, he finds a pair of corpses. It turns out though that this dead couple is not Muzzy or Lydia, but some random hippies who were crashing there and OD’d. Here we get another reminder that McKellar isn’t your typical hardboiled PI, as he refrains from looking at the corpses in the morgue, unable to stand such sights. 

McKellar’s search takes him around the grungy environs of the East Village, and being a lifelong New Yorker McKellar informs us how the place has just been given a fancy new name by the hippies who congregate there. We get a lot of New York info in the novel, as McKellar walks around a lot and informs us what is where. In this way the novel is a time capsule of a long-gone Manhattan, much in the same way that the ‘70s novels of Len Levinson are. An interesting thing though is that McKellar isn’t as cynical about this psychedelic New York as one might imagine; indeed he treats most people with respect, even if he finds their ways odd.

In the course of his investigation McKellar mostly visits a psychedelic art museum, an LSD retreat in the woods, and a couple grimy tenement buildings occupied by dirty hippies. So we don’t get the psych-pop jet-set vibe of similar Pyramid cash-ins of the day, like Fun City, though there is a part later on where McKellar attends a mod party at a socialite’s place…and he literally runs away from an orgy taking place therein. Instead of sleaze, we get lots and lots of exposition about LSD research and mind expansion and whatnot. This is mostly courtesy a character named Jed, owner of that psych art place, Contra Galleries. McKellar takes the opportunity to hit on Naomi, pretty brunette Contra employee and former stewardess. He also finds the time to romance Alexandra Justin, and while McKellar scores with the latter, Peebles is not one to elaborate.

The scoring takes place when McKellar gets a lead that takes him upstate New York to a retreat started by an early LSD pioneer named Dr. O’Meara (gee, I wonder who that could be??). Muzzy and Lydia were frequent visitors of the place, but aren’t there now. Time for more LSD exposition courtesy the good doctor, though up here they’ve moved beyond LSD into more legal methods of mind expansion. This entails film projections and light shows and the like; later in the book McKellar watches a psychedelic “happening,” complete with Warhol-esque art films, rock groups, and more psych light shows, all of it put together by an Abbie Hoffman-esque rabble rouser named Lennie Burns.

Anyway McKellar has to bum a ride from Alexandra to that upstate retreat, and on the way back they give in to their mutual attraction and engage in some hot off-page lovin’. Meanwhile Muzzy and Lydia turn up dead, found in Leon’s place, another OD. This time there’s a suicide note courtesy Muzzy. Leon’s jailed under suspicion and McKellar takes up his cause, figuring something’s not right about all this. As he continues poking around he’s “jabbed” by that LSD syringe in the sequence excerpted on the back cover…a sort of brief deal where McKellar, realizing he’s been dosed with acid, stumbles around and gawks at New York and realizes the profound truth that “Truth is Love” and “Love is Truth.” It’s to Peebles’s credit that this sequence isn’t too goofy.

There really isn’t much action per se; even the LSD “jab” is courtesy someone who bumps into McKellar from behind on a darkened street and then takes off. The finale is more of a tense deal, with McKellar thinking the Contra Galleries owner was behind a sort of LSD-importing scheme and killed Muzzy and Lydia for various reasons. Actually the finale is pretty goofy; trying to entrap him, McKellar bluffs a story to Jed, the gallery owner, that co-worker Naomi was using her old stew job to run drugs…then it turns out that’s really what was happening! McKellar hides in the closed store while the two confront one another, and meanwhile Naomi has come with a gun to take out Jed; in a seriously lazy reversal, Naomi is suddenly revealed to be a cold-blooded killer slash LSD drug-runner.

Only…it gets goofier! Even though Naomi, shot by Jed and near death, admits to having killed Lydia and Muzzy…McKellar still doesn’t buy it, and confronts Robbie Quigley. Then Quigley admits he killed them! Once again McKellar stands by while someone else shoots the villain for him…seems McKellar doesn’t do his own villain-shooting or car-driving…then grills Quigley some more while he dies. Unsurprisingly, Alexandra breaks it off with McKellar soon thereafter…I mean it’s one thing to have an affair while your fiance is alive, but once your investigation has outed him as a murderer and gotten him killed, that’s where she draws the line.

As mentioned McKellar returned in another Pyramid paperback the following year, Blood Brother, Blood Brother, but it seems to lack any of the psychedelic stuff of this one and seems more of a generic detective sort of deal.