Narc #8: Death Song, by Robert Hawkes
July, 1975 Signet Books
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been on a classic rock kick lately, thus this penultimate volume of Narc seemed to be just what I was looking for – both the front and back cover blurbs mention “hard rock” and imply that D-3 narcotics agent John Bolt is about to get involved in the rock music scene. Only…that isn’t so much what happens, and the novel is of a piece with the previous seven volumes, with the rock stuff barely explored.
As usual there’s no pickup from the previous volume (or any other volume, for that matter), and once again the story occurs in the insane heat of a New York summer. At this point I’m starting to think Bolt is stuck in some hellish purgatory, sort of like Bucher; an endless continuum of humidity, crime, and illegal drugs. About the only recurring character other than Bolt’s erstwhile partners Kramer (the black one) and Masetta (the Italian one) is Bolt’s custom-made shotgun, which is given a curious re-introduction this time, with the reminder that it has a three-foot barrel and was made for Bolt by an old ex-Nazi who still flies his swastika flag high.
With each volume Marc Olden has gotten closer and closer to the style Barry Malzberg seeems to have employed in the Lone Wolf series (which Marty McKee hooked me up with the other year but I’ve yet to read, but I intend to!); a barebones plot stretched thin and padded out with stream-of-conscious asides from the many various characters. It’s getting real outrageous, too, with almost the whole of Death Song comprised of hopscotching POV narration by various characters, to the point that it somehow achieves an almost psychedelic vibe – or at the very least until the reader is just plain confused by the incessant juggling of perspectives from one paragraph to the next. The fact that there’s very little forward momentum so far as the plot itself goes doesn’t help.
But Marc Olden always has a good opening sequence, and this volume’s no exception. We meet Bolt as he’s in Los Angeles, waiting on a building rooftop for an LAPD helicopter to pick up a Mafia prisoner named DiPalma who promises to blow the lid off the mob’s involvement in the rock music business. But when the copter shows up it’s a fake, and the dude on it starts hammering Bolt and his fellow D-3 agents with a grenade launcher. All as so faithfully depicted on the cover, though for some reason the artist has given Bolt blond hair this time. I wonder if this is due to a misreading of Olden’s text, as the guy on the LAPD helicopter with the grenade launcher is often described as “the blond cop,” so it’s possible the cover artist – or whoever gave him his marching orders – maybe gave the text a lazy read and assumed “the blond cop” was the hero of the piece. Hard to believe given that the same artist did the previous covers (I think), where Bolt was given brown hair, so I digress.
Anyway Bolt’s like the lone survivor, blasting back with his shotgun and taking out the grenade launcher guy. And wouldja believe – one of the killed D-3 agents was like Bolt’s best friend ever!! Of course we’ve never heard of him – the only recurring D-3 guys we meet are Kramer and Masetta – but that’s beside the point. Bolt’s desire for revenge gives Olden opportunity for more stream-of-conscious musings from Bolt’s perspective. That is, when Bolt’s even in the book. Once again he comes off like a supporting charater in his own series.
Instead, and again as per previous entries, the brunt of the narrative is devoted to a host of characters: Tom Thumb, the good-looking Mafia enforcer who really enjoys his work; Candyman, drug peddler to the rock elite who is described as like a Jewish Superfly; Richie Roses, Tom Thumb’s obese capo; Curt Crane, boss of mob-run Lina Records; Dutterman, former CIA agent, current Lina Records chief of security; and finally Richard Story, a black drug flunky who snitches on Lina’s illegal activities for Bolt. The rock characters are only peripheral, from a petulant glam rocker whom Candyman entertains with coke and a pair of willing gals, to a wanna-be Janis Joplin named Leslie Sugar who finds out the harsh side of the music biz quite quickly. There’s also a female act called “Silver” (Olden has this weird habit of always putting his band names in quotation marks) who are all sexy black women with silver wigs and lipstick and etc, curiously similar to the character Synne in Olden’s much superior Black Samurai #6, published just a few months before this one.
After the opening action scene things settle down to the borderline padding we know from the series…Bolt goes back to New York, often muses on the miserable heat, and tries to figure out how to bring down Richie Roses. As if worried the rock material isn’t enough to flesh out a full novel, Olden also introduces the subplot that Roses’s mob family recently heisted a million dollars worth of amphetimines and has it stashed somewhere. Really though the entire novel’s more about drugs and drugdealing than the “hard rock” promised on the cover, and other than a peek in a recording studio and a concert or two (used as the setting for action scenes), there’s really not much of it at all. Hell, Bolt doesn’t even bang a rock babe, as one might expect – Bolt’s sole conquest this volume is Chris Cotten, blonde PR whiz for Lina.
Halfway through the book I wondered why I was even paying attention…I’d read enough Marc Olden now to know what to expect. The villains would take the limelight, Bolt would get lost in the shuffle, there’d be a lot of talking and worrying and then the harried action scenes would be over before you knew it, and by novel’s end none of the villains would have paid for any of their ill deeds. And what’s more, all of them would likely have escaped. In particular I saw this coming with Dutterman, who per vague backstory ran afoul of Bolt a few years before, and our hero shot Dutterman in the hand and ear(!?), leaving Dutterman disfigured and permanently pissed at Bolt, vowing to kill him one day.
Strangely though, mob sadist Tom Thumb is given more focus in the narrative, coming off like the main villain of the piece. But then this is also typical of Olden; he busies up his Narc books with so many damn villains that I swear sometimes he himself confuses them. Dutterman is introduced as this bogeyman from Bolt’s past – in fact, sort of like old enemy The Apache in #2: Death Of A Courier (which I think is still my favorite volume in the series) – but he comes off more as a weakling, sort of terrified of Bolt and looking to Tom Thumb for all the heavy lifting. Candyman actually has more run-ins with Bolt than anyone, like an action scene that takes place during a Silver concert – Bolt chases Candyman, and the drug pimp throws his platform shoes at Bolt, almost knocking him out!
Only occasionally does the novel come off like the “VH1 Behind The Music From Hell” story we want; Lina prez Curt Crane (whose recently-purchased “Indian painting” is titled Death Song) has a few “look hard in the mirror and wonder what the hell I’ve gotten into” moments, and poor waif Leslie Sugar finds out the hard way that you shouldn’t consort with dudes who are friends with a snitch – the image on the cover of the blonde being held in an armlock while the guy on the floor is being forcefed amphetimines comes from this scene. Olden really toys with us on this one, as he writes it with such skill that you keep expecting John Bolt to crash in and save the day.
Instead, Bolt’s busy scoring with plucky PR babe Chris Cotten, though as ever Olden doesn’t get too explicit. Bolt hits it and quits it, though, called away when he discovers that Tom Thumb and crew are closing in on Robert Story. This leads to another of Olden’s taut action scenes, each of which are usually barebones so far as the genre goes (usually just Bolt against one or two people, with lots of ducking and hiding). That being said, someone tries to drop steel beams on our favorite narc in this one. But the climax goes back to the barebones style, taking place in a factory in Jersey where Bolt uses a decoy to lure out Tom Thumb, Dutterman, and a few other gun-toting cronies. Even here the vibe is more The French Connection than The Executioner.
And I’m happy to report that for once Marc Olden delivers a genuine, bona fida conclusion – by the end of Death Song all the villains are either dead, arrested, or on their way to prison. I couldn’t believe it! Not that this cheers Bolt up much; he’s probably one of the most dour, pessimistic heroes in the genre. Anyway, despite what comes off like a tepid review, Olden’s writing is as ever skilled, but it’s increasingly evident he was getting burned out by deadline pressure; too much of Death Song is made up of page-filler, and it lacks the spark of the earliest installments.