Monday, December 17, 2018

The Chinatown Connection

The Chinatown Connection, by Owen Park
February, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Of all the BCI crime paperbacks I’ve yet read, this one comes closest to being the first installment of a men’s adventure series that never was. “Producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel likely tried to pass it off as such, as The Chinatown Connection is unlike his other standalone crime novels of the day; this one is more along the lines of Dark Angel, with a bit of Mace thrown in for good measure, and leaves the possibility open for more adventures. Either the readers or Pinnacle didn’t bite, though, so the series never happened. But at least Pinnacle mainstay George Bush (H. or Dubya??) gave it a typically cool cover. 

Speaking of Dark Angel, I wonder if James D. Lawrence was behind this one; my only other guess from Engel’s stable of writers at this time would be Nat Freedland and Bill Amidon, who wrote Chopper Cop #3 for him. If I had to go out on a limb I’d guess it was the latter two, given the similarity of setting (San Francisco) and the general vibe of the book. Also, to get a bit lowbrow from the get-go, I think it might be Freedland and Amidon due to the use of the word “pussy,” which to my recollection I’ve only seen in one other 1970s men’s adventure novel – Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert. There is also the focus on making young kung fu-fighting Eurasian hero Tommy Lee hip and “mod,” which reminds me of the authors’s similar attempts at making Chopper Cop Terry Bunker a hip mod cat.

As mentioned our hero is named Tommy Lee; he’s “barely thirty,” the son of a Chinese father and Russian mother who Bruce Lee-style is American by birth even though he grew up in Hong Kong. Tommy has extensive intelligence world experience, drafted while still a teen into serving in ‘Nam; now he’s a successful private investigator who runs a global company called East-West Investigations, with branch offices all over the world and an army of investigators in his employ. While he is as expected a master of martial arts, he’s also prone to carrying a pistol with him and actually gets in more gunfights than fistfights. While Tommy identifies as Chinese – his mother is rarely mentioned, and he seems to have no interest in his Western heritage – the author(s) are at pains to let us know he’s a hip modern young Chinese, one who drives a white Jaguar XKE and wears mod fashions. His main EWI office, in a SanFran high rise, is decorated with “old Fillmore rock posters.” 

When we meet him Tommy’s in the process of beating the shit out of a couple Chinese punks on a dark San Francisco street. Tommy’s been hired as a guard to ward off this recent crop of violent young Chinese thugs; gradually we’ll learn they are members of the Thunder and Lightning gang, a new wave Chinese tong looking to corner the heroin market in Chinatown. Tommy gets wind of it when he learns his new employers – wealthy financier Bartlett Delmonico and his sexy daughter Lisa – are pulling a fast one on him. Delmonico is actualy a Mafia bigwig and he’s looking to crush the competition. And also Lisa’s actually his wife, not that this prevents her from engaging Tommy in frequent sexually-explicit sequences.

As with the third Chopper Cop, there seems to be two authors here: one who handles the intricacies of plotting and one who just wants to get down to the hardcore screwing. Lisa meets Tommy in his office, hiring him to find out who these Chinese toughs are who are threatening her “father’s” business; she and Tommy are in bed within hours of meeting, our author serving up the first of several such graphic scenes. How graphic, you may ask?

[Lisa] threw herself into sex like a berserk Venus, yet it was clear that her piledriving vaginal churnings were the result of a consciously willed plunge into erotic thrills, not a desire that had swept over her uncontrollably.

Or how about…

Tommy bent down and went into the classic sixty-nine position, thrusting his tongue deeply and actively to see if that was the best way to get her off. 

It certainly was, this time. Her muff throbbed up in his face and arched high as he cupped her globed buns from behind. Quickly she drew him into completion and swallowed the discharge. This seemed to be her final signal to shudder brokenly over the orgasm line herself.

And those are just two excerpts from similar scenes throughout the novel; all of them feature such memorably bizarre phrases. Lisa is Tommy’s sole conquest in The Chinatown Connection, with their casual bangs dutifully described every several pages; Tommy will go to Delmonico’s place, get some info, then rush off to a room with Lisa for “documents” or some other pretense. Otherwise there’s no main squeeze for Tommy this time, which I found surprising, though we do learn early on that he has a casual thing going with his sexy cousin, who wears tight Rolling Stones t-shirts and works as his secretary. While the two never break the taboo and have sex, they still provoke each other with racy dialog. Now that I think of it, this is the only other female character in the novel, and she only appears in the opening.

At 183 pages of small, dense print, The Chinatown Connection is a bit overwritten. The author does a capable job of keeping it moving, with frequent scenes of sex or violence, plus a little bit of sleuthing as Tommy tries to figure out who is behind Thunder and Lightning. But there’s just too much fat, in particular the background material on Chinatown tongs or the inner workings of the “Oriental” world. One thing I was glad not to see was a profusion of overly-detailed kung-fu fights, a la Mace. Tommy usually so outskills his opponents that he makes short work of them with a kick or two; his only real martial arts battle is with Hatchet Wang, a notorious axe-wielding thug who sports a silver nose due to an old injury. This fight goes on for quite a while, only for Hatchet Wang to be rendered an almost perfunctory sendoff in the climax.

Upon outing Delmonico as a Mafioso, Tommy is ready to quit, but Delmonico threatens to kill random Chinatown residents every few days until Tommy complies and finds out who is running Thunder and Lightning. Tommy brings in the tongs, resulting in a stalemate between the two forces – the tongs will prevent the Mafia scum from murdering innocents, but the tongs don’t want the T&L thugs around, themselves. So Tommy ends up doing the job, but sort of working with both forces. There is a fair bit of shuffling around, with the Mafia stuff more interesting than the tongs stuff, mostly because the Mafia stuff usually entails sleazy sex with Lisa Delmonico.

There is a bit of a pulp vibe in that Tommy has a host of toys at his disposal, from an armed and armored communications van that’s disguised as a delivery truck to a fancy underwater sled he uses in a climactic scuba sequence (actually this is the first of two or three climaxes – the book sort of doesn’t know when to end). He has all kinds of weapons stashed in safe places in his apartment and office, and can get a sportscar delivered to him on a moment’s notice from one of his army of employees. Even more on the pulp vibe is the late revelation that Tommy is also a master of disguise, and with a few cosmetic tricks can make himself look completely different. We see this in effect in a somewhat-arbitrary part where he stakes out a dingy bar in the hopes of encountering one of the few known Thunder and Lightning members, Tommy posing as a greasy-haired punk just off the boat. 

Action is capabaly handled if a little bloodless. Tommy blows away a couple goons, but mostly beats people senseless with his kung-fu skills. But we get a varied selection of action, from car chases to underwater demolition to protracted martial arts combat. We don’t get much of an idea of what makes Tommy tick, but again this is par for the course so far as the men’s adventure genre goes, and again my suspicion is The Chinatown Connection was conceived as the first installment of a series that never was. I’d love to know more about it, especially who wrote it, but as is typical with Engel’s BCI, it’s shrouded in mystery.

As for Tommy Lee, he went on to other things; word is he eventually became the drummer in an ‘80s hard rock band.


Steve Carroll said...

I'm amazed that out of the dozens of kung fu fiction paperbacks I sought out and devoured back in the 70s that I never ended up with this one in my collection. It would appear on the surface to have been written with me personally in mind. And it's even by a bigger name publisher than the Mace (Manor Books) or K'ing King Fu (Venus Freeway Press) series that I easily located on book racks.

Joe Kenney said...

Steve, thanks for this and your recent Mace comment -- yeah, this one appears to have been pretty obscure. But then most these books were, I guess. I suspect if it had come out earlier it might've resulted in a series...maybe this one was a victim of the oil shortage, which Michael Newton claims in "How to Write Action-Adventure Novels" was why the men's adventure genre withered away at the tail-end of the '70s.