Steel Lightning: Slash And Burn, by Kevin Sherrill
January, 1992 Zebra Books
The never-titled men’s adventure series that I call “Steel Lightning” reaches its third and final volume, sporting basically the same cover as the previous volume (only with “Slash and Burn” lamely added beneath the title) and jumping over to the Zebra imprint, which at this point was the same house as previous imprint Pinnacle.
Like those earlier two books, Slash And Burn is just way too friggin’ long for the genre, coming in at 256 pages. And the helluva it is, most of it’s padding. For once again Kevin Sherrill keeps his main characters on the sideline for the duration, only occasionally livening things up with some action – but even then the action is a bit bloodless when compared to the previous volumes. A sort of blandness has settled on things, and there’s no mystery why there was never a fourth volume.
To make it worse, the opening of the book promises something a lot crazier than we actually get – we meet a teen girl as she’s tripping on Delight, the new drug that’s basically Ecstasy on steroids; pop a pill and you’re a living orgasm or something. Well this girl takes a bunch and prety soon she’s sucking and fucking away, right in the middle of a New York nightclub that’s blasting techno music (the book is very “early ‘90s”)…and then she goes into a massive seizure (one of those unfortunate Delight side-effects), a seizure so, uh, climactic that it makes her entire body seize up, so quickly and so savagely that she severs off the dicks of the guys who happen to be inside the various orifices of her body! And plus she’s dead, too, another of those unfortunate Delight side-effects.
Meanwhile hot brunette Barbara Cohen, former druggie-hooker-pornstar-legal assistant-rape victim(!), current “Street Machine” smurfette, is jogging through the hellzones of New York (it’s the pre-Guliani era, baby), hoping to lure out the latest group of reprobrates her brothers in the Street Machine urban combat unit can wipe out. She lures out some teens with bats and we’re constantly informed how clean-cut they look, how hard it is for Barb (or “Cohen,” as Sherrill arbitrarily refers to her; the dude as ever can’t stay consistent) to grasp that these kids are trying to rape and kill her. This goes on for quite a while and finally Street Machine come out to even the odds…only here does Sherrill realize that he failed to inform us that these kids are “all black,” whereas previously he seemed to be describing like a roving pack of kids just escaped from a rerun of Leave It To Beaver.
But “sloppy writing” is the name of the game in the Steel Lightning series, so we’re prepared for this sort of thing. However we are not prepared for the endless dirge of dialog that ensues here, as the members of the team, all hoisting subguns and suited up in their black kevlar uniforms, argue over whether or not they should kill these hoodlums. Here we are quickly re-introduced to the team: there’s JD Dinatale, the gruff and unlikable leader; Moses White, aka “the black guy,” a pro football linebacker once known as “Dr. Pain;” Miguel Negron, aka “the Hispanic one,” a former jazz trumpeter or something; Joseph Vernick, the stout WWII vet; and finally Brian Benson, the wraithlike force of malevolence who was burned to a crisp in the first volume. And of course we’ve already met “Barb,” she of the checkered, hard-to-understand past.
As usual though, Sherrill refers to these characters by a host of different names in the narrative, often making it hard as friggin’ hell to understand who he is referring to. As I’ve mentioned before, “main character” Dinatale is referred to as “J.D.,” “Dinatale,” or sometimes as just “John,” and it’s even worse when new characters enter the fold. And Sherrill is very much a “you missed the earlier volume, you’re shit outta luck” kind of a writer, as he doesn’t much re-introduce any of these characters and just thrusts them at the reader, arbitrarily referring to them by a variety of names with little concern for reader comprehension.
You’d think by this point someone at the publisher would call Sherrill and tell him, “Mr. Sherrill, consistency is your friend. All this referring to your characters by multiple names in the narrative, particularly when you’ve just introduced the character and haven’t given him proper setup, is most confusing for the reader. Could you please consider just referring to your characters by one name in the narrative to avoid such confusion?” To which Sherrill would respond, “Hey, fuck you, man – I don’t need this shit. I’m Kevin Sherrill!! If I wanna refer to my characters by a hundred different names, I will! Now suck it!” “Yes, Mr. Sherrill, I’m sorry to trouble you,” the publisher would say, but he’d be talking to silence because Sherill had already hung up. At which point the publisher would call up his chief editor: “Look, we’re cancelling Steel Lighnting. I can’t take anymore of this diva Kevin Sherrill, not to mention his lack of consistency in character naming.” “Cancel Steel Lightning? Are you crazy?” The chief editor would explode. “We’ve got Sherrill all lined up for Carson – he’s gonna be one of the last guests!” To which the publisher would respond, “Listen, I’m Mr. Zebra – if I say Steel Lightning is cancelled, it’s cancelled! Now suck it!”
But anyway our heroes have lured out these creeps and now they’re all rarin’ to gun ‘em down, just clean this scum right off the face of the earth, but instead they get in a long debate about it. Just back and forth, right in front of the punks who moments ago were chasing Barb with the intent of raping and killing her. And it goes on and on…with Moses White figuring maybe the punks should get a break and Vernick agreeing, and even Barb agreeing, but Brian’s over there chomping at the bit to kill ‘em all. It’s up to Dinatale to come up with the novel idea of beating them all up to a pulp.
The book as mentioned is too bloated for its own good, so we don’t get to the main villain until later: his name is Levi Golden, he’s an old Jewish man who escaped to America from the Nazi horrors of the ‘40s, and he’s behind the Delight scheme. In a bit of continuity we also learn he was the boss of the main villain in the previous volume. But man, talk about sending mixed signals. The back cover hypes Golden as “sadistic,” but when we meet him we’re treated to an overlong backstory showing all the horrors and misery he endured…escaping Germany as a young man with his wife and coming to New York, where he found even worse horrors, his wife raped and his daughter turned a hooker-junkie and his son killed and his wife left a catatonic wreck – and I mean all this before it’s even 1947!
So are we supposed to hate this guy or feel sorry for him? At any rate in a “tribute” to The Godfather, Golden a la Don Corleone had to get tough to face toughness, thus resolved to becoming more monstrous than those who preyed upon him. He set up a mafia of other escaped Jews and now, in 1992 (and we’re told this is all in December of ’92, right before Christmas, in other words a few months after the book was published – the future!!), Levi Golden is a kingpin of crime. But he has no marks on his record, and indeed his cover is as a harmless New York tailor, and he’s so successful in this pose that when Dinatale visits his shop later in the book only Dinatale’s cop-born sixth sense tells him the harmless old man is anything but harmless.
Sherrill though just wants to bide his time for the majority of the book; we endure all kinds of padding, from more Delight-spawned deaths to arbitrary action scenes starring Golden’s top henchman, Turk. When we get back to the Street Machine themselves, it’s usually to encounter them in mundane aspects – again arguing over the justness of their cause (three volumes in!!), or like with Vernick pulling the plug on his vegetable wife, or Dinatale bullyng an old nemesis of his from the force named Reimer who is clearly set up as a dude who will attempt to take down the Street Machine in some future volume that never happened.
While Slash And Burn is padded to the extreme, to Sherrill’s credit he writes as if it’s ten years earlier and not 1992; which is to say, the novel’s as un-PC as one could demand from the genre. This is mostly relayed via dialog, in particular from Dinatale; for example there’s a part early on where Maitland, the millionaire who secretly funds Street Machine, tells Dinatale that his team has picked up the notoriety of Batman and Robin in the underworld. To which Dinatale gruffly responds: “Two flaming queens if there were ever any.”
Speaking of sleazy stuff, the moment you’ve waited for has finally arrived, friends – Dinatale and Barb do it. As we’ll recall, our former hooker-pornstar-rape victim-crook asskicker has been doubting if she’s truly a lesbian; the thought of a man touching her makes her flesh crawl, after the gang-rape she endured in the first volume…any man, that is, except for Dinatale. As we learned last time Barb was wondering if she wanted to say to hell with it and do the guy – this time, after a failed hit attempt on Dinatale and Barb by Turk, the two repair to Metro Meats, ie the towering Street Machine headquarters, and clean up each other’s wounds before giving in to temptation. Sherrill really stretches this way out, long-simmer to the max, but after lots of talk, including the two smelling each other (seriously!), when they finally get to the down and dirty screwin’ Sherrill cuts away: “It went on like that for hours.”
After this Barb is now “the leader’s woman,” but nothing much else plays out on this subplot. It’s made clear though that it’s true love between the two and they would’ve remained an item in future installments. And the others othe team take it all in quite pragmatically, which is to say there are no ripples caused. I guess the only change is the two now worry over each other in the action scenes – which, finally, we get to in the final quarter. So in that way Slash And Burn is identical in its construct to the previous two volumes: an opening action scene, lots of padding, and then a final harried climactic action scene. Gee, I wonder if the fourth volume would’ve followed the same path…?
And the big finale is more goofy than anything: Golden’s secret Delight-manufacturing location is a fortress of a building deep in Chinatown, which we are informed is a no-man’s land along the lines of Beirut or something – such a no man’s land that Dinatale tells his troops they can go in with guns blasting, no silencers needed this time. And hell let’s bring a couple LAW rocket launchers along, too! But just when it goes down it all gets super ridiculous…Moses’s knee goes out on him due to an injury he’s been dealing with the entire book, and his massive frame crashes into the garbage the team’s hiding in, alerting Golden, Turk, and their entourage that it’s an ambush. And meanwhile Barb, apropos of nothing, goes into a seizure and starts freaking out!
Golden doesn’t have like an army or anything, so for the most part it’s just the Street Machine hiding in refuse and springing up to fire off a shot or two. We do get just a bit of gun-porn, not as much as previous volumes though, and as mentioned the gore is much toned down. In fact it’s all so bland I can’t even remember if Golden is given a big sendoff. About all I remember is all this occurs on Christmas Eve, and the book ends with a lame “Bah, humbug” joke from Brian Benson, and that’s all she wrote for the Steel Lightning series.
I recall the thrill I experienced when I discovered this series a few years ago, trawling Amazon for anything published by Pinnacle in the latter ‘80s, in particular any obscure men’s adventure books. I remember seeing “Midnight Lightning” listed, with no details provided, and then researching further and realizing it was indeed a men’s adventure novel – and that there were two more volumes! But sadly the series just never amounted to much, and my only suspicion is that Sherrill was given poor direction by the publisher…the books are always promising to go all-out, but never quite do, as if the publisher wanted a “real” novel, and not just a crazy action spectacle.