Monday, May 20, 2019

Deadly Companions

Deadly Companions, by Bob Sang and Dusty Sang
No month stated, 1977 Belmont Tower Books

To address the elephant in the room straightaway, Ken Barr’s cover clearly rips off the poster for Diabolik, one of the cooler films of the ‘60s. And while Barr’s art is as great as ever, unfortunately it does not convey the true vibe of this novel, which is more of a light caper sort of thing. The main character at no point dons black garb nor totes a submachine gun, and the main female character isn’t even a blonde. However diamonds do play into the plot, so that at least is accurate.

The novel almost comes off like an installment of a series that never was. Protagonist Jacob Pendleton isn’t given much setup – not even much of a description – but we’re informed his various past adventures have become almost legendary in his home base of Chicago. He has a circle of friends, one of them being the commissioner of police, which lends the novel the vibe of a ‘30s pulp. Otherwise we’re not given much info on Mr. Pendleton. He has a penthouse with a view of the Chicago skyline and he’s got a luxury yacht; he’s got a chaffeur/bodyguard named Willie who’s like a karate master. He picks up ladies with ease due to his dashing looks and ruggedly virile charm – take note, though: there’s zero in the way of exploitative stuff, with the violence minimal to the point of PG and the sex strictly off-page.

The Sangs (not to be confused with the Spangs) toss us right into the story with little setup or explanation. We meet Pendleton as he’s coming out of a concert, his palm bleeding; his heavyset pal C.S. Barnes just introduced him to a lovely young lady named Nadia O’Connell, daughter of fellow adventurer Charlie O’Connell, and when Nadia took Pendleton’s hand she sliced his palm open with a serrated fingernail, then happily walked away. Now Pendleton’s left the concert early – he detests the sight of his own blood, we’re told – and retreats to his limousine, where chaffeur Willie tells him some dudes came by to deliver a note: Stay away from the girl.

This bizarre setup will only be repeated throughout the novel – this is one of those books my friends where I didn’t have a clue what was going on most of the time. Pendleton quickly deduces that the palm-cut and the letter were tests courtesy Nadia’s father; he’s a notorious hardcase and likely is testing Pendleton’s mettle before offering him a job. This apparently is what Pendleton does for a living – he goes around the world on various exotic jobs. He frequents a bar tended to by an old man and his grandson and both discuss how “you can always tell” when Pendleton’s about to go on a new affair because of a look in his eye. Again the whole thing is like an installment of a pulp series that never was; the reader really feels as if he’s missing backstory.

 Pendleton has already arranged to have dinner with Nadia the next night, where she admits that the whole palm-cutting deal was an idea of her father’s. Her dad wants to pay Pendleton half a million to fly around the world and visit various banks; O’Connell has diamonds in each and he wants Pendleton to merely check and ensure they are there. This whole job had me so confused I had to re-read the section a few times. The important thing is Pendleton takes Nadia back to his yacht and has sex with her – all of it off-page, even the traditional exploitation of Nadia’s body. Bummer! Indeed all of Pendleton’s frequent scores will be off-page.

But this leads to more of that bizarre shit the narrative does little to explain. While Pendleton and Nadia get busy in the main cabin, Willie tools the yacht around the harbor. He sees a fishing boat in distress and goes to help, but the guys hit him with a tranquilizer and storm the boat. Then someone alerts the cops and this brings police comissioner Joseph Grimboldi onto the scene. Pendleton’s ship is a mess; Willie’s still tranqued out on the deck, and Pendleton’s cabin suite is destroyed and covered in blood, with imprints of Nadia’s curvaceous form in the blood. Jacob himself is passed out on the bed, also drugged.

This is all very strange and sordid…so imagine the reader’s shock when Charlie O’Connell shows up the next day and says his daughter is fine and it was all yet another test! And Commissioner Grimboldi is basically like, “Okay – I know that’s how you roll, Charlie.” It’s all so preposterous and weird; it’s like the authors had these visuals in mind – a yacht cabin covered in blood with imprints of a girl’s body everywhere! – but had no idea how to convey these visuals in the novel itself. And Nadia is okay, the whole contrived scenario an attempt to fool…who? Eventually we’ll learn Charlie O’Connell is having Mafia troubles, but this elaborate scenario serves no purpose in this regard. I mean folks it was at times a surreal experience reading Deadly Companions.

And for that matter, I don’t even know who the hell the “deadly companions” are supposed to be! Despite all common sense, Pendleton goes on the job anyway, but he flies around alone (picking up the odd stewardess or two), and Nadia isn’t his “companion” on the job. Perhaps it refers to young Peter Garabaldi, nephew of old Mafia godfather Dominic Garabaldi; he shadows Pendleton around the globe, checking the diamonds after Pendleton leaves the bank and ordering the occasional assassination attempt on our hero. But Peter and his grandfather are what pass for enemies in the novel, so they’re certainly not “companions.”

At length we’ll learn that O’Connell was pressured by the Mafia to start selling stolen diamonds as well as heroin, but it’s all so twisty and relayed so off-the-cuff that I had a hard time following the plot. What it boils down to is O’Connell, without giving Pendleton all the info of what’s going on, keeps sending our increasingly-addled hero around the world to visit these banks, and at each bank he meets not only Peter Garabaldi but also the same damn clerk. At each bank around the world. The novel quickly attains a repetitive tone, and it’s not helped by the lack of action. In Geneva someone takes a shot at Pendleton – on Peter’s orders – but misses, and another minor character sacrifices himself for Pendleton at one point. But our hero himself doesn’t pull a gun or fight anyone or anything. Mostly he just smokes his pipe and reads Nero Wolfe.

Women certainly go for his rugged charm, though; he picks them up with infinite ease, but there’s no naughty stuff at all. Nadia sort of emerges as the main female character, and she comes back into the narrative once Pendleton’s settled again in Chicago and trying to figure out what’s been going on for the past 150 or so big-print pages. At this point the authors kill off a character off-page – I spent the rest of the book assuming it was a fake story, only for it to turn out to be the truth – and finally Pendleton confronts old Dominic Garabaldi. This leads to a pages-long exposition from the godfather on what O’Connell was up to, why the charade of Pendleton flying around and always seeing Peter there (his job was to ensure the heroin was in the packets or somesuch).

Other than an eleventh hour car chase, in which Willie does all the work, there’s no big action finale. Actually there isn’t much of a finale at all. We learn that some strings are pulled and Peter Garabaldi will be arrested, but otherwise the novel sort of drifts to a muddled close. Pendleton heads back to his frequent watering hole, where the bartenders chuckle, “With Pendleton, it’s never over!” Referring again to his knack for action and intrigue. But it really was over for Jacob Pendleton, and I can’t say the reading public has suffered from the loss. The novel wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t great – it was just sort of blah, really, and more confusing than anything.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


Chase, by Norman Daniels
No month stated, 1973  Berkley Medallion

Chase was a cop show that lasted a single season, running from September of ’73 until spring of ’74. I never saw it, mostly due to the fact that I hadn’t been born yet. And I probably never would’ve even heard of it had it not been for this paperback novelization of the pilot episode, courtesy Norman Daniels, the author who gave us the Man From A.P.E. series and tons of other books, most of them paperback originals.

But I of course had heard of series creator Stephen J. Cannell; probably any guy around my age will remember his name, if anything due to The A-Team, which Cannell created about a decade later and memorably featured that goofy bit at the end of each episode with him yanking the latest hot page off his typewriter and tossing it. I remember in college in the ‘90s my friends and I had recurring jokes on what Cannell was typing and throwing away – this was back before cell phones and the internet was still dial-up (plus it was for geeks anyway), so it’s not like we had much else to do or talk about. 

A little research shows that Cannell wrote this two-hour pilot, but then per network tradition the concept was altered before the actual series began – pretty much the same thing happened with The Six Million Dollar Man. It’s a wonder the show even got off the ground, because it has one of the most ridculous concepts I’ve ever encountered. Basically a police inspector in some unstated city wants to start a “secret” cop squad (gee, what could go wrong??), and when he can’t get the idea approved, he moves forward with it anyway…but it’s all so off-the-book that the squad members will have to cover operating costs out of their own pockets. And there are no promotions and no recognition. So this is like the one job that would be worse than being sent to Vietnam.

The novel opens with what will turn out to be the sole death in the novel; an undercover cop named Dan Freeman finally collars a thug he’s been chasing named Traynor, but Traynor gets the drop on Freeman and blows him away. He then stashes Freeman’s corpse and plants a gem on it, giving the implication that Freeman was dirty and on the take. This is the incident Inspector Dawson uses to make his “secret police force” a reality. Actually the concept wasn’t Dawson’s idea – it was Captain Chase Reddick’s, a “heavyset” cop “well into his 40s” (Daniels by the way seems to mean “stocky” by “heavyset,” as he uses the word a few times throughout). But Reddick had been drinking at the time and didn’t think Dawson would take him seriously.

So it’s all off the books and Reddick is to put together a top-secret team, one which will conveniently enough be called “Chase,” even though Reddick didn’t come up with the name and doesn’t like it(!?). Freeman himself was working on a secret case (one wonders what the hell is going on in this nameless city) and no one knows what it was, but due to the gem planted on him his widow and kids are being screwed out of his pension – as expected, the stupid city officials are more than willing to believe the cops are dirty. As expected, they also turn down Dawson’s “secret squad” idea in the opening, but their reactions are more sensible than Daniels intends to convey – I mean, a secret police squad, accountable to no one and totally off the books, could lead to nothing but trouble.

But to hell with sensibility! Reddick takes the job of leading the squad, even though he won’t get extra pay, the hours will be lousy, the danger will be high, and there will be no recognition for his deeds. Hell, there won’t even be any backup if he gets in too deep. It’s even more incredible that three younger cops join him, all of them “chosen by computer:” Fred Sing, a Chinese guy who is an expert biker (and it’s pretty cool that Daniels doesn’t constantly remind us Sing is Chinese, so the book’s kinda modern in that regard at least); Norm Hamilton, a pilot who flew tons of helicopter missions in ‘Nam; and finally Steve Baker, the top driver on the force.

I mean it’s ludicrous – we gotta find out why this undercover cop was killed, so we’re gonna need a motorcycle, a helicopter, and a fast car! Oh and we gotta pay for all of it ourselves. Anyway I digress. Baker has history with Reddick; hazy backstory has it that Baker and his partner were on the scene during a bank robbery or something, and Reddick barged in, causing the crooks to kill Baker’s partner. This backstory was kind of hard to get a handle on but the long and short of it is that Baker hates Reddick’s guts and instantly wants off the Chase squad. Oh, and that’s the other bullshit thing – you can’t quit!! Even though the squad doesn’t officially exist and all that jazz, if you’re assigned you’re assigned, and if you want out your only option is to quit the force.

Sing and Hamilton are all for joining, but Baker resents the transfer and spends the rest of the novel bitching about it and sending in transfer requests (which Dawson constantly denies). The Chase squad is set up out of an abandoned fire station, which reminded me of another cop novel I recently read: Killer At Large by Manning Lee Stokes, which also featured a new squad operating out of an abandoned fire station. The coincidence of this was too much; Stokes was likely writing Killer At Large when Chase was on the air, so I wonder if he ripped off the idea from this show. Well, I’ll just pretend like he did. I always enjoy these little synchronicities which have no meaning to anyone but me, but then that’s the very definition of a synchronicity – they only matter to the person who notices them, per Jung. (I’ve waited nine years to use “per Jung” in a review.)

I’m really digressing now. Reddick’s first order to the three men is to get some mangy clothes and grow their hair long – to look “disreputable and hippie.” Even Reddick goes for a long-haired grungy look, much to the ribbing of Inspector Dawson. Meanwhile Baker is tasked with souping up an ordinary-looking car and Sing is tasked with souping up a motorcycle. Hamilton meanwhile calls in on a favor an old friend offered him and gets a helicopter for a cheaper rental fee. Dawson even offers to pay for expenses out of his own pocket. It’s all very, very hard to believe, particularly given that the “disreputable hippie” look serves no purpose other than occasional jokes. 

A glaring problem with the book is that too much of it is comrpised of exposition, usually informing us of stuff we just saw happen. But its even worse in the action scenes. The first one sees Baker and Sing chasing a suspect in their souped-up car and motorcycle, Hamilton following from above in his helicopter, and the entire scene is relayed through dialog. Reddick, in a regular car and unable to keep up with the others, must listen on his radio as Hamilton reports on everything as it happens, as if he were a sports announcer calling plays. As for the straight-up expository stuff, as mentioned it’s usually Reddick meeting up with Dawson and going over the current status of the case. Material we readers already know. Clearly this is Daniels’s attempt at filling out the pages, but man, the book’s a mere 160 pages of fairly big print. He could’ve expanded on Cannell’s script and added more fireworks.

Because it’s clear that Cannell’s pilot suffered from the constraints of a TV budget. A concept like this needs to be wildly over the top; Chase and team should almost be like a commando squad, with constant firefights and chases on the ground and in the sky. But as it is, there’s absolutely no need for a motorcyle, a helicopter, or a souped-up car when you’re researching a homicide, and Cannell tries as hard as he can to make it work, as does Daniels. Who actually has a tougher job of it, because he can’t rely on visuals and a soundtrack to keep his readers from noticing all the problems with the concept and story.

Another thing missing, as expected, is any adult stuff; the sole female character in the novel is a lady named Barbara who was supplying Freeman with info. It’s intimated that Barbara was a hooker, but this being the novelization of a 1970s TV movie, it’s not very clear. She turns out to have more up her sleeve, though, working with Traynor, the thug who killed Freeman in the opening pages. These two characters are plotting to screw over wealthy criminal Quentin Mackenzie; Reddick discovers, through hard-to-believe means, that Freeman was very interested in an upcoming motorcyle race that starts in Tijuana and goes across the border into the US. At length we’ll learn Traynor is competing in this race and will be hiding diamonds or heroin in his bike, moving the stuff for Mackenzie, but secretly planning to make off with it on his own.

Finally the concept is worked into the plot, sort of; Sing heads to Mexico and tries to get in the race, having to break into the sign-up office to do so. This gets him arrested and into the orbit of Lt. Salizar, an old colleauge of Reddick’s. Now working with the Mexican police the Chase squad attempts to bring down Traynor and Mackenzie, with the highlight of the novel being the race. However again it’s mostly relayed via dialog. The other big action scene has Reddick and Hamilton chasing after Mackenzie as he tries to escape in a plane. No bullets are fired, though – in fact the heroes never fire a single gun in the book, which I guess is nice so far as keeping down the costs goes, but kinda sucks if you’re an action-starved reader looking for a cheap thrill.

The book ends with a “Special Note to Readers” which informs that the series itself will see Reddick in more of a behind the scenes capacity, with some new guy out in the field with Sing, Hamilton, and Baker. Plus there’s gonna be a dog. So the show was experiencing the usual post-pilot network retooling; it’s my understanding that further retooling occurred late in the season, with Sing, Hamilton, and Baker removed from the series entirely and replaced with three new guys. Not sure if this is indication that the show was doing poorly and the recasting was an act of desperation, but as for Chase the novelization, it seems to have fared pretty well, garnering two editions.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Red Horse Caper (Renegade Roe #1)

The Red Horse Caper, by L.V. Roper
No month stated, 1975  Popular Library

Here we have another mystery series that was packaged as men’s adventure by Popular Library, same as Hardy and Cage. Renegade Roe didn’t last as long as either of those; the first page lists a handful of “forthcoming books” in the series, but only one more volume was published: The Emerald Chicks Caper. Having read this first book, I can see why the series didn’t resonate with readers, but at the same time it’s still a lot better than Hardy, so it’s a mystery why it didn’t last longer.

The awesome cover art had me expecting the series Dakota promised to be – a kickass American Indian protagonist with fast-moving plots involving babes and bullets. But instead it’s along the same lines as those other two Popular Library series: a slow-moving mystery with very, very little in the way of violent action or steamy sex. I mean friends series hero Jerry “Renegade” Roe doesn’t even own a gun, so there goes the cool cover painting. There is however a blonde in a white bikini, but she barely even says hello to our hero.

Anyway the series is set in New Orleans, but there’s really not much effort to bring the city to life; it’s not like we’re talking A Confederacy Of Dunces or anything. Jerry Roe (I think the “Renegade” nickname is only mentioned once in the very beginning; Roper just refers to him as Roe) is a 35 year-old private eye of Cherokee descent. His background isn’t much elaborated; it seems that his grandmother or great-grandmother had a child with an Irish man or somesuch. Otherwise we get no info on Roe, whether he’s a vet, how he got into the private eye game, etc. He co-runs a P.I. agency with Stuart Worth, a married guy who is one year older than Roe but acts like a more mature, responsible adult in comparison and thus is the straight man of the duo.

Roe plays up on the “wild Indian” image with shoulder-length hair and his customary “Indian” attire, complete with deerskin moccasins and headband. Or, as Worth refers to his look: “a mod hippie with a pigmentation problem who can’t grow a beard.” There’s a lot of un-PC banter throughout, and it would appear L.V. Roper might’ve been a little inspired by the similar racist-baiting banter of Razoni & Jackson. Hell, within the first few pages Roe’s already doling out the hoary “White man speak with forked tongue” line. We also learn via Fran, the long-suffering young lady who serves as secretary for the two P.I.s, that Roe hopes to impregnate every white woman he meets, so that he can make “America a red race again.” Not that Fran has indulged; she makes it clear to her boss that she’s never had sex with Roe. Actually this whole conversation is hilarious in today’s era of #metoo and whatnot; Fran says she puts up with Roe’s constant advances because “he can’t help himself.”

With his new Mustang, crazy wardrobe, and brazen nature, Roe promises to be a much more, uh, “colorful” protagonist than he ultimately proves to be. Here are just a few of the “badass” things Renegade Roe does in the course of this novel:

Drinks endless amounts of Maker’s Mark bourbon

Says he never carries a gun because he’s afraid of them

Relentlessly hits on his partner’s wife; she politely puts up with the harassment

Relentlessly hits on his secretary; she politely puts up with the harassment

Gets abducted and tortured by thugs, who use pliers to rip off two of his fingernails; he’s rescued by his partner

Kicks an unarmed guy in the balls and on the jaw while his partner holds a gun on him

Stands in clear view while spying on people with his binoculars

Talks out loud to himself while hiding from enemies who are just a few feet away

Gets abducted (again) and imprisoned on a boat, manages to free himself and jump in the water, then paddles there uselessly; he’s rescued by his partner

Goes on a date with the client’s secretary, hits on her relentlessly; she politely puts up with the harassment

Cracks the case by hiding in a closet all day

Rushes off to confront the main villain, once again without a gun, and is instantly captured; he’s rescued by his partner

This is another of those times where I honestly don’t know if the author intends this as parody or if he really has no idea that his “badass” character is actually a loser. Anyway as mentioned we don’t get any background on Jerry Roe and Stuart Worth…how they became partners, past cases they’ve handled, etc. We do learn that Roe has a bit of a name about New Orleans due to his brash actions and all the hot women he usually has at his side, but again, we don’t see anything of the sort in this volume. The two seem more content to drink beer in their office and have secretary Fran answer the phone. And Worth is the total straight man, constantly bitching about Roe’s wardrobe, how he’s late for work, how he drinks all the time, and all that jazz.

Roper is guilty of doling out every single “Indian cliché” he can in the course of the novel; Roe is constantly drinking and is mocked by other characters as being the stereotypical drunk Indian. And Roe for his part doesn’t help things, trotting out “paleface” rejoinders. It gets to be a bit much, particularly the humor about his drinking. Also Roe deals with his share of bigotry; their client in this book is a wealthy guy named Langden who demands that Roe not be allowed to work on the case because he doesn’t want to deal with a drunk savage. Of course Langden relents: his story goes that his business was retained by the government to develop experimental fuel for “the new piggy back space shuttle program.” The fuel is called “Red Horse,” and some of it’s been stolen.

Langden is certain his young new secretary, Lisa, stole the fuel, and now she’s missing. He can’t go to the Feds because his company will lose the Red Horse contract. So it’s up to Roe and Worth to find it. Our heroes tour Langden’s facility and Roe hits on his original secretary, an attractive 40-something named Ethyl who is filling in now that Lisa’s missing. Langden says that Lisa is involved with a shady entreprenneur named Lon Brandon (it’s so, so confusing to have characters named “Langden” and “Brandon”) and Langden’s betting Brandon is behind both her theft and her disappearance.

Sure enough, Roe runs into some thugs of Brandon’s, and after a meeting aboard the guy’s ship Roe agrees to drop the case in exchange for a few crates of Maker’s Mark and ten thousand dollars. This is because Roe has already found Lisa’s corpse, strangled by a lamp cord in her apartment. Later on Roe will be captured by more thugs; these ones only appear in this sequence and are led by a scar-faced sadist who has two of Roper’s fingernails ripped off by pliers. Worth shows up to save the day, toting a revolver, but his sole shot doesn’t hit anyone; the scene also serves to introduce Lt. Ken Marshall of the New Orleans police. He has a longstanding feud with the two detectives but agrees to give them 48 hours to solve the case before he steps in.

Roe’s sole action scene comes toward the end, when he’s again captured by Brandon’s men and taken aboard his ship. Escorted to a holding area by a massive “Negro,” Roe manages to hoodwink the guy and beats him up, making an escape. Otherwise he doesn’t do anything else; Worth does all the heavy lifting when it comes to guns and rescuing people. Before his capture Roe saw Ethyl, Langden’s original secretary, carrying a picnic basket off Langden’s ship. Sure enough, while hiding later in Ethyl’s closet, Roe will find some Red Horse cannisters – and also that they store “a horse of a different color,” aka heroin. The whole thing’s a convoluted heroin import scheme, and the whole “experimental fuel” bit is just padding. This is another of those books where the “climax” is composed of our heroes expositing for pages and pages about the villains’ motives.

Incredibly, Roper keeps the arrest of all the villains off-page, Worth and Roe having sicced Lt. Marshall and the Feds on them. Meanwhile the main villain has managed to escape, so as mentioned Roe rushes off to get him, having deduced where he’s hiding. This leads to another scene that’s heavier on dialog than action. Roper pulls this throughout; there’s a lot of stuff in the book that has no meaning other than to fill pages, and when it gets to the good stuff Roper breezes through it. For example, several pages are wasted on Roe bartering for the rental of a boat, hiring a young punk to sail him out to Langden’s ship one night. But after all this buildup, Roe ends up on the ship without any need of the kid’s boat, and later on tells the kid “thanks anyway.”

So as stated it’s not too surprising that only one more volume followed, but again there’s nothing here as lame as in the Hardy novels, which are even more misleadingly packaged, promising sex and violence when they’re really more about what Hardy eats and watches on TV. I’m not too familiar with Roper but other than the second Renegade Roe I have another paperback he did for Popular, Hookers Don’t Go To Heaven, which has a pseudo Donald Pleasance on the cover and promises all kinds of sordid sex. I’m going to imagine though that this is once again some creative license from whoever wrote the cover blurbs for Popular Library.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The New Stewardesses #2: The London Affair

The New Stewardesses #2: The London Affair, by Judi Lynn
No month stated, 1975  Award Books

The second installment of the three-volume New Stewardesses series is titled “The London Affair,” but friends, the titular stewardesses are in and out of London within the first several pages. This is very funny, given how much the previous volume built up the trip to London. The stews actually spend more time in Montreal, with the majority of the tale set in New York City. But then I don’t think “Judi Lynn” put much planning per se into the series, as these “novels” really come off more like arbitrary short stories featuring an easily-confused cast of characters.

And boy are they easily confused, mostly because the author does nothing to vary their personalities. Or for that matter, to even friggin’ describe them. Whoever this mystery author was, she or he is very much in the Irving Greenfield mode; if you missed the previous book, you’re just shit outta luck. There’s no recap of the first volume, no re-introduction to any of the characters or their ongoing plots. But those of us who did read the first one will recall the climactic events saw most of the stews on a flight to London. Well, they arrive on the first page of this volume…and the author, same as last time, does zero to bring the locale to life. If you are looking for a glimpse of swinging ‘70s London, you won’t find it here.

What you will find is a lot of softcore smut, and it gets a bit more explicit than it did last time. But we’re still not talking full-on sleaze or anything. As with the previous book, there’s more focus on heavy petting and “Let’s screw” dialog, before the author leaves the actual tomfoolery off-page. So we get to London, the stews talk excitedly of being here…then they go to a hotel and get caught up in their various soap opera subplots. Actually that implies there’s more meat to the subplots than actually exists. The characters on display are such ciphers, folks, that nothing much makes an impression – I’d forgotten how hard the New Stewardess books are to read, let alone to review.

So first up Captain Rick Andersen and stew Jennifer get busy, and if I recall part of the previous book’s subplot was that they’d been a couple years before, then Jennifer found out about Rick’s old wife and kid or somesuch, so ended it. That’s not really elaborated here. Instead it’s straight to the softcore smut, while at the same time in another room another stew named Laura finds out that a doctor she’s having a fling with has flown across the ocean to spend the night with her. “They shared their ultimate joy and fell asleep in each other’s arms,” it goes, again reminding one of the stuff in the previous book. But as mentioned, this one does get a bit more explicit at times:

Here in London we meet John Carter (not the Martian one), head of World Wide Airlines, a portly 53 year-old who makes it a point to bang all the sexy stews in his employ. His assistant, James Gilbert, has a “pimp instinct” for such things and to this end scopes out hotstuff stew Cynthia. But Cynthia refuses to sleep with Carter, having sworn to back off on sex for the time being, given how outrageous her sex life was becoming. This plot initially appears to be going somewhere, but ultimately doesn’t. Instead two other stews, Sandy and Esther, discuss opening a fashion store in Manhattan when they get back home, calling it Cloud Nine and staffing it only with stews. Surprisingly, this subplot actually does pan out.

But before we even get to page 25 the stews have already left London. Next up they go to Montreal, which actually takes up more of the text than the London trip. Humorously, the author doesn’t seem to understand that people in Montreal speak French. However the crux of this particular storyline is that Jennifer, who is once again shacked up in a hotel room with Captain Rick, is arrested by a cop making a random “morals raid” and hauled off as a prostitute. Despite her protestations that she’s Rick’s girlfriend, the cops insist the hotel is frequented by whores and Jennifer and Rick aren’t married, thus she’s a hooker and she’s under arrest. A lawyer character is heavily built up and quickly dropped once he gets Jennifer freed from jail the next day.

Jennifer really can’t catch a break this time around. Next up she and Laura are working on a Miami-bound flight…and there are three hippie terrorists onboard, a girl and two guys. This is actually the situation hyped the most on the back cover and the first-page preview, but it too only lasts a few pages. And the hijacking attempt is ludicrous in today’s post-9/11 world; the hippie freaks have smuggled a knife onto the plane, one of ‘em whips it out, and they insist the plane fly to Cuba. The pilot has “no choice” but to comply. Oh, and even more ludicrous – a cop happens to be onboard, a new character brazenly introduced into the text and specifically stated as carrying a gun…and he doesn’t do anything!!

Instead everybody bides their time – perhaps indication of the author biding his/her own time as the pages pad out – and eventually they’re on the way to Miami, despite the storm front they’re flying into. We’re told the veteran pilot has handled all sorts of severe weather but this one’s a doozy and even he’s scared. The attempts at ratcheting up the tension are laughable because, as stated, there’s absolutely no characterization on display, just ciphers with names. Even worse, at this point the cop finally decides to do something and disarms the terrorist, and that’s it for the attempted hijacking. 

And Jennifer, who as you’ll notice is the closest we get to a main character, still can’t catch a break – next she finds out she’s pregnant with Rick’s child. Her immediate response is to get an abortion, which her fellow stews encourage her to do, even though Rick is against it. After some deliberation Jennifer has it done (thankfully off-page), and afterwards she has the expected second thoughts about it. And Jennifer still can’t catch a break! Later on she’s propositioned by a passenger during a flight, one who naturally assumes she’s a whore, and Jennifer turns him down cold…only to be called into an executive office a few days later, where she’s informed the passenger has sent the airline a sworn statement that Jennifer propositioned him.

Even more ludicrous than the hijacking storyline, this one sees Jennifer being reprimanded, the airline taking the passenger’s side without any attempt to hear Jennifer or to believe her when she protests that the guy was the one making the indecent proposition. She’s put on unpaid leave, but some fellow stews band together in a strike. Finally the airline hires a former FBI agent to look into it, and he puts things right…and also gets a date with Jennifer, unsurprisingly. Oh, and as if paying off the karmic balance for Jennifer’s abortion, the author has stew Sandy delivering a passenger’s baby on one of her flights. Sandy you’ll recall becomes co-owner of Cloud Nine boutique in Manhattan, and the novel climaxes with its grand opening.

Only one more volume followed, The Diary, which appears to have received a scarce printing. Somehow I was able to get a copy for cheap so one of these days I’ll get around to reading the damn thing.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Beirut Incident (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #92)

Beirut Incident, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

Forrest V. Perrin, a veteran pulp writer, turned in his sole contribution to Nick Carter: Killmaster with this volume. With a plot about Mafia killers and a back cover slugline announcing “MASSACRE,” it appears that Award Books was looking to ride on the coattails of The Executioner and other mob-busting vigilantes.

However, Perrin writes the novel more along the lines of a hardboiled ‘50s private eye yarn; tellingly, Nick (who narrates the story) at one point reads a novel by Richard Gallagher. Both the sex and the violence are toned down, and the story seems to occur twenty years before it’s set – late in the novel Nick handles one mobster by locking him and a nude girl in a hotel room and calling up a newspaper reporter to exploit the scandalous situation! And yes, Beirut Incident is indeed about the Mafia – one of the few instances in which Nick tangles with the Cosa Nostra – but the title actually does work into the story and isn’t just an example of Award slapping any random title on a manuscript, which per Will Murray’s research they were wont to do.

Beirut, Nick learns from his boss Hawk, is being used by the mob to smuggle in Sicilian killers. Per Hawk, the old dons of the American Mafia are pissed that the organization has been taken over by new blood, young punks who act more like lawyers or businessmen. They want a return to the old ways – the violent ways, where things were resolved by force and not paperwork. To this end they’ve begun importing goons from the Old World, natural born killer types who will help these old mobsters show the new, wussified mobsters how it’s done. Through some laborious reasoning, Beirut is the locale they’re using to secretly bring the Sicilians into the States. Actually now that I think of it maybe “Beirut Incidentwas a title Award came up with and Perrin had to figure out a way to work it into a story about Sicilian mobsters.

Nick, who when we meet him happens to be in Lebanon, chasing down a terrorist in the desert, is brought onto the job by Hawk. His mission is to smash the Sicilian-smuggling ring and also to kill the members of the Council, ie the group of old dons who run the American Mafia. Nick has been especially requested for this job by no less than the President. Nick heads to Nicosia, the “sewer of the Mediterranean,” and bullies an old acquaintance into creating a new identity for him. This guy seems to be working for someone else, but Nick’s a bit clueless this time around and disregards the obvious warning signs – one of the many pitfalls of writing these sorts of books in first-person.

Now posing as “Nick Cartano,” a Sicilian-American, Nick heads for Beirut, the “cesspool of the Mideast” (one can almost detect a pattern here; I kept waiting for Nick’s next stop to be “the shithole of Arabia”). He slums around, hoping to bump into a lead. This happens when he randomly saves some guy from being hit by a car, and the guy turns out to be the nephew of the top-ranking don in New York. This is Louie, an affable sort who, we’ll gradually learn, isn’t involved with the mob’s dirty half and solely works in its legit operations. Regardless Louie is of course here as part of the Sicilian-smuggling ring and as expected Nick’s hit the jackpot without much effort. After hitting a few bars with Louie they’re BFFs, and when Nick drops a few hints that he’s a tough s.o.b. on the run from the law due to some stuff in Sicily, Louie takes the bait and offers him an exciting job in America.

Here the plot becomes even more bizarre because running the smuggling operation is a smokin’ hot and stacked Chinese lady named Su Lao Lin, who happens to be the top Red Chinese agent in the Middle East. Nick knows this because he saw her file recently and has a photographic memory; also because she’s one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen. When Louie brings in the new guy there is of course some hot and heavy stuff going on in the air when Su Lin gets a gander at Nick. She practically pulls him into the next room and, after much groping, Nick props her up on a desk and does her. Perrin though isn’t too explicit – again, the vibe is of an older pulp novel – with the extent of it being stuff along the lines of, “At the first penetration she gasped aloud.”

Su Lao sends Nick off to get a fake passport, and sure enough it turns out to be courtesy the same dude who did the “Nick Cartano” passport for him. In other words, this is the “other job” Nick suspected the guy of secretly having; he’s the man behind the passports for Su Lao Lin’s Sicilian mobster pipeline. Oh and why the top Chinese spy of the Middle East is helping the Mafia is something left unanswered; Nick wonders about it a bit and moves on to other things, Perrin keeping the ball rolling to prevent any questions. The problem is, this guy not only knows Nick’s an imposter, he also knows he’s an AXE agent, so we get a bit of nicely-done suspense as Nick tries to figure out how to handle him.

And our hero’s a bit heartless, even though he makes a few passing mentions on how he feels bad about it. He also knows Su Lao needs to be silenced. So after yet another somewhat-descriptive boink, Nick plants some plastique under the woman’s bed and catches a redeye flight to New York. He doesn’t even find out the bomb’s gone off until later in the book, getting confirmation that Su Lao is dead. This was one of the lamer handlings of a villain I’ve ever encountered in the genre, and Perrin should be ashamed of himself.

At this point Beirut Incident becomes more of a Mafia yarn and less of an international espionage thing. However it’s clear that Perrin is breaking the back of his story to make it fit in the men’s adventure genre; Nick, new on the scene as a Sicilian mercenary, instantly sets the two major Mafia factions against one another, and it would be clear as day that the new guy is responsible – I mean, reports of course come in from Beirut that both Su Lao Lin and the passport-forging guy are dead, and Nick was the last person seen with both of them! And whereas the two families here in New York have had a friendly rivalry that hadn’t resorted into violence, now corpses from each family are showing up, with clear – ie planted – evidence that the other family was behind it.

Louie’s uncle is Nick’s new boss – Don Joseph “Popeye” Franzini, a Mafia Council bigwig. He’s a wheelchair-bound curmudgeon who keeps Louie and his smokin’ hot niece Philomina out of the family’s illegal activities. There’s more burnin’-yearnin’ in the air as soon as Nick and Philomina see each other, but the latter plays it cool because as far as she’s concerned “Nick Cartano” is just more riffraff her uncle uses in his criminal pursuits. Nick of course is determined to correct this notion. The rest of the novel plays out in New York and I’m guessing Perrin lived there or at least had a thorough guidebook, because like a vintage Len Levinson yarn we get all kinds of ‘70s Manhattan details, down to street locales.

Action is infrequent and usually features Nick pulling some stunts on the mobsters, making it look like the work of the Ruggiero family, ie the traditional enemies of the Franzinis. Along the way he finds the time to get “familiar” with Philomina in somewhat-explicit detail; turns out she’s an undercover FBI agent and has taken this duty to bring down her uncle, who killed off Philomina’s father when she was a little girl. Nick tells her he’s a secret agent and all that jazz, and soon enough she’s feeding him info. However Philomina doesn’t play as much into the action as she would in a similar story of the modern era; there’s no part where she totes guns and helps Nick take out mobster scum, as would be mandatory if this novel were written today.

Perrin’s writing has that typical “veteran pulpster” flair, where he keeps things moving even if not much is actually happening, but like so many of those writers he basically drops the ball in the finale. After cooling his heels the entire book, he rushes through the climax, literally killing off the majority of the villains off-page thanks to a bomb Nick’s planted. Even before this we’re merely told of all the violent action Nick’s caused, with various mobsters getting in shootouts off-page. The last pages feature “so-and-so was killed” sort of expository dialog and most of the time we have no clue who the hell just got offed. As usual with this sort of thing you wish the author had spent a little more time on this action stuff instead of rushing through it.

As mentioned this was Perrin’s only Killmaster. He published a lot of books, some under pseudonyms and some under his own name – one of these was The Don a Godfather cash-in from 1971. I tried reading it a few years back but found it a little too dry for my tastes. One of these days I might give it another try.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Outrider #1

The Outrider #1, by Richard Harding
June, 1984  Pinnacle Books

What were they thinking [for the cover], having Andrew-Dice-Down’s-Syndrome as the hero? 

 -- Zwolf

Over the years a few people have emailed me about the Outrider series, which was Pinnacle’s attempt to jump on the post-nuke pulp bandwagon. It ran for five volumes, with an unplublished sixth volume. According to an Amazon reviewer who hunted down and contacted Robert Tine, the author who served as “Richard Harding” for the entire series, Tine still has this unpublished manuscript but has no plans to ever release it. Anyway I figured it was time I got around to reading the series.

I remember seeing these books in school back in the ‘80s when I was on my original men’s adventure kick, but I don’t think I could ever find the first volume, so I never started reading the series. Somehow I was under the impression Outrider took place in the immediate aftermath of nuclear war, but it’s at least a hundred years out, so pretty much it’s along the same lines as Doomsday Warrior. Even the writing is similar; Tine goes for what’s almost a juvenile fiction tone, save for the egregious usage of the word “fuck,” which peppers the narrative more times than the average David Mamet script. He also POV-hops like a mother, with the narrative jumping willy-nilly from one character’s perspective to another with absolutely no warning for the reader. This still bugs the hell out of me but these days I’ve tried to consider this lazy writing as “psychedelic.”

Our hero is Bonner (I spent practically the entire book misreading it as “Boner”), a legendary badass in this Road Warrior retread of a post-nuke future. Gradually we learn that years before he was the first “Outrider:” a sort of post-nuke Knights of the Round Table who ventured around the blasted remains of the United States. Actually maybe they were more like leather-clad variations of Lewis and Clark, as they were also mapping out the nuked ruins of the country. But all that fell apart when Leather, formerly Bonner’s friend, went bad and took over “the Slavestates,” running his fiefdom from “the Cap,” aka Washington, DC.

Now Bonner makes his home in Chicago, humorously presented as a safe haven in this future society; it’s basically like an Old West town, in which the gun is still the law but everyone tries to get along and live free of the various tyrants who control the country. Tine doesn’t tell us too much about his setting, likely intending to gradually world-build as the series progresses. We don’t even learn when the nuclear war occurred; in fact, no one knows anything about the society that came before, save for Bonner, who has learned stuff from books. I thought this concept came off a bit awkwardly. At least Doomsday Warrior has the premise that Century City was founded by survivors of the nukes, thus explaining how society is still remembered a hundred years later, or at least looked to as a golden age of sorts.

When we meet him Bonner’s in bed with some woman whose name isn’t mentioned – not that Tine delivers any sex at all in the novel (again, it’s very juvenile in tone) – when some dude comes in and tries to kill him. Bonner is known for using knives and the occasional shotgun, and as mentioned there’s a legend about him, how badass he is and etc. Initially he comes off like any other character in the book, but only eventually do we learn he goes into a sort of kill-lust when engaged in combat, like the living embodiment of death or something. This first action scene doesn’t give any indication of that, though, and mostly serves to set up the sole plot of the book: this would-be assassin reveals that Leather has captured Dara, Boner’s old flame, and has put a bounty on Bonner’s head.

With no explanation-via-narrative of what he’s planning to do, Bonner gets his car gassed up (as Zwolf accurately described it, “basically pipework welded around an engine”) and heads out of town. His destination – much to the consternation of his friends – is the Cap, where he’s going to settle the score with Leather. There’s a goofy part where outside the city Bonner bumps into another former associate – a recurring bit seems to be he knows everyone out on the road, but then the implication is that not too many people have cars, thus it’s a small group of people to even know – and this one too decides to try for the bounty on Bonner’s head. It of course turns out to be a bad idea, however Tine is not a men’s adventure author to dwell on the gory details.

Another guy Bonner runs into turns out to be one of his companions for the trip: Starling, whose schtick seems to be that he’s good with rifles or something. He decides to go along with Bonner basically for the hell of it. A more dynamic personality is introduced in Cooker, a “gashound” the two free in an extended action sequence against the Stomers, Leather’s, uh, leather-garbed goon squad. Foregoing guns, Cooker employs a flame thrower on his massive vehicle, which is basically a rolling gas tank. He’s one of the new breed of men who only think of gas – the comparison is made to the gold rushers of the past – and also foregoes such basic necessities as washing and taking care of himself and etc. The endless banter between him and Starling is one of the high points of the novel. 

Along the way we get a glimpse of Leather’s hellish domain, the Slavestates – this via a random character who is set up in another of those abrupt POV-hops and who makes his laborious way back to the Cap to tell Leather Bonner’s alive and coming for him. Leather as described sounds like he walked out of a ‘70s heavy metal group. He doesn’t do much to bring himself to life – there’s a blandness to all the characterizations, save for Cooker – and indeed his whole sudden idea to get Bonner isn’t much explained. But he’s the villain of the piece so it’s no biggie. We also don’t get too much irony out of his living in the White House, because like the rest of the characters, he has no understanding of the world that came before.

That’s another thing that bugged me. During their trip south Bonner, Starling, and Cooker comment on the ruins of the past and the latter two marvel over Bonner’s book-learned explanations of what such and such a thing was, or what strange customs the pre-nuke Americans had. I felt that the total lack of comprehension was a little hard to buy; the characters were more like aliens on a new world. But perhaps that was the intent. Some of it is pretty hurmorous, like their reaction to astroturf in a stadium. Per the post-nuke template, there’s also an element of horror, particularly when the trio encounter mutant rat-creatures in a New York subway. Just as freakish is Leather’s army of Radleps, apparently a contraction of “radiation lepers:” mutants who are mindlessly devoted to Leather and will fight to the death for him.

Throughout the quest the group gets in frequent firefights with the Stormers, and there’s a cool part midway through where they free another of Bonner’s old comrades from Alcatraz. Here the three ransack the Stormer weapons cache and come out with some unused Steyr automatic rifles. Even these Cooker refuses, torching people with his flamethrower instead. As for the old comrade they free, this is unintentionally humorous because it’s never properly explained why Bonner even needs him. Anyway it’s a guy named Harvey who dresses up in an old business suit because he considers it a sign of status – yet another thing that’s come down to these nuke descendants is that important people wore three-piece suits.

Harvey himself doesn’t bring much to the tale, but it’s through him that Bonner’s party also takes on the so-called “Mean Brothers,” a towering, troll-like pair of brutes who would be more at home in the pages of Doomsday Warrior. In fact it’s hard not to think of the character Archer when reading about them – they eschew weapons save for the odd axe or hammer, preferring to literally rip people apart with their hands. The last addition to Bonner’s party is a bona fide lesbian biker gang: the Sisters, who wear “old jungle fatigues and the bits of high fashion paraphernalia they had been able to loot from the old world,” including knee-high boots.

What makes Bonner’s careful assembling of his special team is the fact that he doesn’t even use them when he makes his final assault on Leather, in the Cap. As if in brazen disregard of the previous hundred-some pages he’s spent on introducing each new “team member,” conveying the idea that Bonner at least has some plan in mind and needs these particular people to make it happen, Tine just has Bonner make a sudden decision to handle things solo, and he marches right into Leather’s lair and confronts him, all by himself! But again, this just only furthers the juvenile tone of the series. He’s of course quickly captured and tied up.

Here another long-developed subplot is abruptly fizzled: Dara, who you’ll recall was the whole purpose behind Bonner’s quest to DC, is barely in the book for a few pages. She’s hauled out by Leather’s goons, already half-dead from beatings and rapings, and Leather announces that he’s going to rape her right in front of Leather. But after she kicks him in the balls, Leather orders his men to “cut her…beat her,” and several Stormers and Radleps set in on her, beating her to a pulp. The brazen disregard for plot structure sort of undermines the intended horror of the situation.

Worse yet, Tine seems to end the story well before his word count has been hit; Bonner’s friends come to the rescue in spectacular fashion, and Bonner and Leather confront one another. Bonner chops off Leather’s hands – per Zwolf, the villain will come up with goofy hand substitutes in future installments – but, like some ‘80s action cartoon, Leather escapes before Bonner can finish him off. This would seem to be the end of the story, but I can only imagine Tine got a phone call asking him to “elongate” (per Carsenio) the tale, thus the final quarter features this newly-introduced character, a badass tracker type named Beck, hunting Bonner and team through the Firelands.

Yet another of Bonner’s old companions, Beck is kept in captivity by Leather and is described as “a huge granite boulder of a man,” even taller and heavier than the Mean Brothers. In what can only be seen as absurd reasoning, Leather is certain that Beck will hunt down Bonner, despite the fact that they were once best buds, because Beck “goes to the highest bidder.” But then Leather’s suffering from a lack of hands so probably isn’t thinking straight. Anyway this whole final part is ridiculous because it’s clear as day what’s going to happen when Leather releases Beck from his dungeon and just swears he’ll give him a bunch of money and let him go free in exchange for hunting down and bringing back his best friend. So in other words the “suspense” is laughable.

As Zwolf also mentioned, the final half of the novel sort of descends into constant action; it also gets a bit gorier, with nice touches like severed Radlep heads being thrown around. But on the whole I’d put this series on the level of Endworld, only with as stated more of an R rating so far as the language goes. Otherwise it very clearly seems to have been written for 12 or 13 year-old boys, and it’s my suspicion that’s exactly what Tine set out to do. In that regard Outrider can be seen as a success. Personally I prefer a slightly more “mature” tone in my post-nuke pulp (say written for 14 or 15 year old boys!), so to me it’s got nothing on Traveler or the almighty Phoenix.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Killer At Large

Killer At Large, by Don Bannon
July, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Back when I was collecting these BCI Crime Paperbacks I tried to find out who had written this one, but no info was available; “Don Bannon” wasn’t listed anywhere, even in Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms. So I assumed it was written by William Crawford, given the similarity to Crawford’s BCI crime paperback The Rapist. Now, finally having read Killer At Large, I can say with complete certainty that it is the work of Manning Lee Stokes. It’s his style, with solid prose but padded plotting, ten-dollar words, recurring phrases and situations from previous novels, and even the trademark in-joke character names (“Doctor Engel,” ie book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and “Superintendent Stanton,” ie Stokes’s pseudonym “Ken Stanton” on The Aquanauts). 

Trading on the same sleazy vibe as the other BCI crime paperbacks, this one’s about a serial rapist named Billy Starret who breaks out of prison and goes on the hunt for one of his previous victims, a policewoman named Marion McManus. She collared Starret five years ago, getting raped and her back broken in the process (it happened in the subway, and she fell down some stairs while trying to escape). Starret vowed revenge at the trial. Meanwhile, in the undisclosed city in which all this occurs (we learn at least it isn’t New York or Los Angeles), Marion heads up a newly-formed Sex Crimes Unit that’s intended to get a handle on the city’s increasing number of rape cases.

The main protagonist is 27 year-old Sgt-Detective Rick Preston of Vice, fairly new to the force but rising quickly in the ranks. We’re informed he’s a hunk of a man with tons of women at his disposal, and at novel’s beginning he’s wondering if he should give it to the clearly-willing new policewoman in his precinct, Priscilla Foxx. A pretty blonde with a small-but-shapely figure (we’re often reminded), Priscilla is the one who tells Rick about the new SCU team and also that she’s heard on the grapevine that Rick is going to be co-running it, which is news to our hero. She also begs him to transfer her to the unit, as she was raped as a teen and wants to help crack down on the rapists out there.

Preston brings along his current partner, grizzled Charles Kuttner, but argues with his captain when he’s ordered to also bring along Tom Varantz. New to this particular division, Varantz has a bad rep and is seen as a problem; he was basically kicked off his previous unit. Preston’s captain wants to get rid of Varantz by sending him along with Preston to the SCU. In addition there’s a towering, muscular policewoman named Cordellia who might be in love with little Priscilla Foxx, and who berates Preston for putting such a “green” female cop in the unit. And commanding the SCU is beautiful but icy cold Marion McManus, of the “stiff manner and even stiffer back.” Oh, and Marion’s partner that night she was raped five years ago was none other than…Tom Varantz, who sent her out to waltz along the subway as rape bait and then went off to get drunk, not providing the cover he’d promised her.

Yes friends, this motley crew of misfits is intended to reign in the rape epidemic; one gets the impression they’d spend most of their time fighting each other. SCU HQ is an old fire station, with the men on the first floor and the women up on second, with even the pole still there for them to slide downstairs. Surprisingly though, Stokes does very little with the actual SCU setup, as the novel quickly becomes more concerned with two intertwined elments: Rick Preston falling in love with Marion McManus upon first glimpse of her, and Billy Starret’s escape from prison and the gauntlet formed to protect Marion from him. There’s also an arbitrary subplot about Rick going out on a limb to help an old friend of his, a black high school teacher named Ray Foster who has been accused by a slutty white trash student of grabbing her boobs. This stuff is so incidental to anything that you wonder why Stokes didn’t fill those particular pages with more-appropriate material like, you know, the SCU handling rape cases. But then that’s Stokes for you. I was more impressed that this time he actually resolved this particular arbitrary subplot, even tying it into the main plot.

Killer At Large features all those typesetting tricks Stokes employed in his latter novels: bulletins, various memorandums, teletype twixes, transcripts. Some of it, as usual, is as egregious as can get, like when Rick reads a pages-consuming report on the objectives of the Sex Crimes Unit. But anyway I mention this here because the novel opens with a lengthy digression on Billy Starret’s past, all courtesy the prison psychiatrist who brefriends him. But again surprisingly Stokes actually works this stuff into the narrative, much later on, in particular the nugget of information that Starret has a security uniform stashed in his parents’ home. It by this novel means that Starret will be able to elude the police dragnet out looking for him; we’re informed many times that the average person develops a blindness to a man in uniform, automatically seeing him as a cop.

We find out Starret has escaped in the first quarter of the book, and initially I was surprised because it seemed as if Stokes left the event off page. “That’s not the Manning Lee Stokes I know,” I thought to myself. Sure enough, the next chapter reverted to Starret’s perspective and spent 31 whopping pages detailing his escape, step by step. Long story short, Starret makes a box kite and flies it off the prison in the middle of a blizzard, almost killing himself in the process. He kills a guard and later rapes and kills a woman whose house he breaks into, seeking refuge from the blizzard.

I always get the impression Stokes was chomping at the bit to get sleazy, back when he was writing in the ‘40s and ‘50s (like in The Lady Lost Her Head); here he goes Full-Bore Sleaze, because the unfortunate woman happens to be a hotstuff horny housewife whose husband is away for work, so she gets drunk, dresses up in garter belt and stockings, and screws herself with a cucumber in explicit detail…and Starret happens to come upon her house, sees the light inside through a window, and starts watching her. Stokes keeps the rape-murder off page, however, but word gets to the SCU and they know it’s the work of Starret.

Stokes doesn’t get lost in the details of police beauracracy, yet at the same time this isn’t an action-packed roller coaster like Crooked Cop. In fact, Rick doesn’t even pull out his gun until the final pages. We get a few brief summaries of some rape cases the SCU handles, but for the most part the focus is on Rick’s sudden love for Marion, a love he keeps to himself. When word gets out that Starret has escaped and Rick learns she was raped by him five years ago, he pulls strings to be put in charge of the case. At this point the subplot about Rick’s old friend, Ray Foster and the white trash girl who has accused him, sort of falls by the wayside. Here Rick also learns, again via Kuttner, that Varantz was Marion’s partner the night she was raped – and meanwhile Kuttner’s found out why Varantz is so hated by fellow cops. He’s a coward, as Kuttner found out first-hand during an off-page collaring of an armed rapist.

As with practically every other Stokes novel I’ve read, I realized over halfway through Killer At Large that hardly anything had happened in the narrative, yet regardless I was sufficiently caught up in it. I get the impression Stokes put a bit more of himself in this one. He certainly doles out some memorable lines: “Now let’s go see if we can find the character who likes to cornhole little boys,” “…a guy can’t chase freelance cunt all his life,” and this jawdropper: “So what’s it going to be, Lisa? Drop the charges and forget the whole thing? Or let your parents find out you suck cocks in a junkyard?” Special mention must also be made of this line, which is one of the greatest I’ve ever encountered, both silly and profound, both stupid and cool: “He was now less than a minute from his future.”

Things all come together during the climactic search of the aforementioned junkyard, where Stokes resolves both the Ray Foster and Tom Varantz subplots. The former via the deus ex machina discovery that white trash “victim” Lisa is such a frequent visitor to the junkyard, sucking off various guys, that the proprietor has started charging the guys who come see her; this elicits the unforgettable line above, as Rick successfully blackmails her into dropping the charges against his friend Ray. However Stokes leaves it a mystery whether Ray really did grab her, as Lisa sticks to her story despite being outed as a cheap whore. As for the Varantz subplot, Rick takes the opportunity to beat him up and tells him he’ll beat him up every day until Varantz quits the force!

Stokes dwells in more uber-sleaze in a later chapter which sees a member of the SCU making a heroic sacrifice, after which Starret’s uniform is ruined. We barrel right through the finale, with Rick and Marion racing to bring down Starret before he can rape Marion’s sister as a proxy for Marion herself, and to do it rogue before the rest of the force finds out this is what he plans to do. In other words they both want to kill him, not arrest him. However the climax is a bit too harried, and I would’ve preferred a slower payoff on Starret’s comeuppance.

This was an enjoyable one, better than some of the other BCI Crime Paperbacks I’ve read and certainly one of Stokes’s better novels. Here’s hoping he wrote some more of these for Engel – I still haven’t been able to figure out the authorship of all of them, so some of them might turn out to be more Stokes yarns.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Kane’s War #3: Death Waves

Kane's War #3: Death Waves, by Nick Stone
July, 1987  Ivy/Ballantine Books

It’s been so long since I read the first volume of Kane’s War I had to go back and re-read my review. Good grief, I had to bail on it halfway through – I must’ve had a helluva lot more free time back then. Well anyway, I don’t have the second volume, but as John Lennon said, it’s “nothing to get hung about.” This doesn’t appear to be a series with multi-volume storylines; in fact, I’m not even certain the same author wrote this one. Even though it’s the same exorbitant page count as the last one (nearly 300 pages!), it’s got massive print, and also the “marinara mystery” vibe of the first volume isn’t as prevalent.

Also, hero Ben Kane fares slightly better. As we’ll recall, he spent the majority of that first volume getting knocked out and recuperating in the hospital, and even dropped his own gun in the climactic action scene. That being said, Kane still manages to get knocked out and captured in the very first action scene of this installment, but afterwards he handles himself much better. So who knows, maybe it is the same author, just with a lesser word count, so less of a need to pad pages; as it is, Death Waves sort of rolls along and is much pulpier than its predecessor, featuring mind-controlled soldiers and a Bond-esque super villain intent on world domination.

One thing I’m not sure about is if the second volume introduced Kane’s latest girlfriend, Karen, but I’m guessing not; even though she’s introduced to us cold, as if we’re to understand she’s Kane’s latest steady woman, later on it’s explained that she’s come down here to the Virgin Islands for a brief vacation before she starts work on Mica Island, a closed-off retreat owned by mega-wealthy Ted “Link” Mica. But when we meet Karen at the start of the book she’s about to become something else – the latest victim of white slavers who are operating here in the Caribbean and who have kidnapped several other lovely young ladies.

What itself could provide the main plot of the book instead becomes the obligatory “opening action scene,” as Kane tracks down the missing Karen to a desolate island and decides to go in alone, no weapons or anything. But it’s a return of the clumsly bufoon from the first volume, as he’s knocked out and captured posthaste. We don’t get too much info on these white slavers – they’re mostly just presented as modern pirates of Middle Eastern descent – because soon enough attack helicopters land and soldiers in black uniforms get out and decimate them. Our “hero” stands and watches as some newly-introduced group of characters come in and handle the job he was supposed to do himself. 

What Kane finds most odd about the situation is that the black-uniformed soldiers operate almost like robots; there is no emotion, no reaction to getting shot, even. Even odder is the dude commanding them – Ted Mica himself. This, he casually explains to the freed Kane, Karen, and other hotstuff babes, is his security force, which he declares the greatest combat outfit in the world. He invites Kane and Karen to dine with him on his opulent yacht that night.

One thing retained from the first volume is the somewhat-explicit sex; Kane and Karen head back for Kane’s junk, the Wu-Li, and get busy posthaste (“One finger found her dewy crevice and he felt the warm slippery passage tightening, aching for him,” and the like). Later in the book Kane also scores with Jessica, the British beauty who figured so heavily in the first volume; as for his other casual bedmate, Michelle, she stays off-page for the duration, off on some trip for her dad’s business or somesuch. If you’ll recall, she was the one captured in the first volume, with Kane desperate to save her; this time Karen gets the honors, as of course it turns out Mica Island is a hellhole of brainwashed employees and, to quote the Eagles, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” 

The schtick is that Mica Island is where the rich and powerful go to get cured of their various hang-ups; in just a short time it has become known for curing any addictions or other undesirable behaviors. Mica’s got a world-class psychiatrist at his disposal, but soon Karen, herself a behavioral specialist, detects something is up, as even this guy has no idea how Mica is curing people so quickly. But as mentioned this installment’s a bit pulpy; it’s clear from the get-go that Mica, that depraved genius, is beaming subconscious signals onto the island. I mean good grief, there’s a sign over all the beds demanding that people wear the provided headphones while sleeping. Mica and his people insist the headphones just play harmless white noise to aid sleep.

Meanwhile back in the real world Kane learns that all kinds of mysterious stuff has been going on at Mica’s place; none of the natives hired to work there have returned. Kane’s buddy Ganja (good grief how I wish I had a buddy named Ganja) tells him of one particular guy who took a job on the island to pay for his wedding, but suddenly sent his fiance a terse note stating that he was staying on for several more months. We readers have already seen this guy get the forced brainwashing treatment employees receive for not wearing those damn headphones at night. Ganja of course is back from the previous volume, as is the rest of Kane’s network of buddies and colleagues, including cipher-like Miles, another ‘Nam pal who I don’t think even appeared in that first volume.

At least this time we get to see Miles at work; he and Kane scuba dive onto Mica Island and scope it out, leading to the first of several action scenes. The action is very much in the blockbuster movie mold, not overly gory or even bloody, with Kane using his customary Magnum revolver again. This I felt was the action highlight of the book, with the two here to save Ganja, who has gone undercover as a new recruit in Mica’s security force. Oh and the sadistic security force leader is named “Major Frank,” folks. Surprisingly Ganja doesn’t get brainwashed, as he foregoes the headphones (as any sensible friggin’ person would do) and is instantly outed as a spy.

Curiously though the book sort of runs out of steam, no doubt due to the still-unwieldy word count. By this point not only is Karen brainwashed, but Kane’s learned that Mica intends to brainwash all the bigwigs of the world in his insane quest to ban nuclear weapons. In a belabored setup Jessica goes undercover on Mica’s yacht, with Chief Bukowski (another recurring character) posing as her security guard, and here they learn the brainwashing mechanism is stashed on the yacht itself. However, and folks I kid you not, Mica has a notebook with the workings of the mechanism, including a section headlined “how to reverse the brainwashing process,” and the finale turns out to be a race to get hold of this particular Maguffin. Worse yet, Mica disappears in the finale and another character tells Kane what has supposedly happened to him.

I do like the beach read vibe of the series, though it wasn’t as heavy this time around. In fact, very rarely did I get the impression this was taking place in the Caribbean. But I also like the large cast of characters; even Kane’s old CIA boss-enemy, Weaver, makes an appearance, and late in the novel we meet one of his operatives, a black guy named Brock, who seems primed to appear again. Anyway, this one, despite being an insane 280 pages, was a fairly quick read – and hopefully so was this review.

Monday, April 22, 2019


Heir, by Roger Simon
July, 1970  Dell Books
(original hardcover edition 1968)

Roger Simon, who later in the ‘70s would have a hit with The Big Fix, the novel that introduced his dopesmoking PI Moses Gunn, here turns in more of a literary sort of affair – actually it storms right over the “literary” line and right on into the pretentious zone. I’ve never read the Moses Gunn books but they have to be written in a different style than the self-conscious, overly “artsy” vibe of Heir.

Purporting to be the journal of Marcus Bottner, the “heir” of the title, the novel is told in an almost stream-of-conscious style as Marcus, in his early 20s, informs us how he’s just accidentally killed his 18 year-old girlfriend, Jennifer. This happened because he gave her a shot of heroin to counteract an overdose of amphetimines. Now Jennifer’s corpse sits in a tub of ice in Marcus’s bathroom in his apartment overlooking the Hudson here in New Jersey. The “journal” takes place over a few days as Marcus deals with his new life as a criminal – an idea which attracts him – while trying to figure out how to dispose of the corpse.

The only problem is, Heir sort of comes off like it’s narrated by Niles Crane from Frasier. Marcus however doesn’t even have a single likable quality, so from the outset the reader is already annoyed with him. Luckily the book’s short, just barely over 150 pages, so we don’t have to put up with him too long. Marcus we’ll learn was born into vast wealth, mostly due to the inheritance left behind by his racketeering grandfather, Max. Marcus, a rich kid with literary aspirations, feels akin to William Burroughs, who similarly was born into wealth thanks to the Burroughs typewriter.

And there’s the other whammy – not only is Marcus an annoying effete, but he also wants to be an important author, and studied writing and all that jazz. So there’s this self-reflective, self-conscious vibe to the whole book, which again is mostly just comprised of Marcus’s journal, which he hopes to sell someday under a pseudonym, or perhaps move to another country and have it published there. But otherwise Heir is filled with pretentious stuff like Marcus writing about something and then stating “Excuse me a moment,” with the next sentence being written “later” and with an explanation of what disturbed him as he was writing.

To make it worse – hardly anything happens. Marcus (or should I say Simon) constantly stalls forward momentum with digressions about how he met Jennifer, his relationship with her over the past two years, his childhood, or various other incidents in his privileged past. Only occasionally do we cut back to the main plot of the tale, but even here it’s a slow-going affair – mostly talks with his cousin, Selma, who does PR for rock groups, and Ornstein, his childhood friend who similarly has literary aspirations and who is writing a play about a character modeled after Marcus.

Oh and Marcus keeps his room at near freezing levels, but when this proves unfeasible he hides Jennifer’s corpse in an antique harpsichord – he’s taken it apart, stashed the corpse in there (covered in a sheet and spritzed with perfume), tossed out the “guts” of the harpsichord with the trash, and re-assembled it, all off-page. This leads to the novel’s sole bit of humor when Selma and a psychiatrist she’s retained visit Marcus in his freezing apartment and he bluntly tells them he’s killed his girlfriend and hidden her body in the harspsichord; a confession that’s taken as delusional fantasy. 

But as mentioned the meat of the book is more concerned with arbitrary, digressional flashbacks on Marcus’s time with Jennifer in Europe, his past experiences with her; turns out she was a bit of a bitch, hitting on guys and sometimes taking them home right in Marcus’s presence. There’s also a bit on their growing fondness for drugs, with Jennifer introducing Marcus to grass – more elaborate backstory on how he scored a big haul to impress her early in their relationship – and later to heroin. The drug stuff isn’t as prevalent as the cover implies, though Marcus does shoot up during yet another lunch date with his cousin Selma.

Marcus I guess is intended to represent his generation – something he ponders in his navel-gazing narrative – but it does get to be a bit wearying to accompany him throughout the novel. He puts on the expected show of judging the older generation, protesting the war (he even goes to an anti-Nam rally with Ornstein) and supporting all the new liberal ideas of his youthful generation, yet at the same time of course he’s a self-obsessed murderer and heroin junkie. Of course this is likely Simon’s intention, but as I say the schtick wears thin after a while. The novel too clumsily straddles the line of social commentary and crime thriller.

Eventually Marcus truly confesses to Ornstein (another important moment kept off-page) and gets his support in dumping the body; Ornstein’s suggestion is the Hudson. This leads to a comedy of errors as Marcus stashes the corpse in the trunk of his car and pulls up to an isolated spot, only to be confronted by a group of Hell’s Angels who try to rob him before a cop shows up. A panicked Marcus drives off on various interstates and is again stopped by the police for not paying a toll. This cop in particularly is almost humorously anal-retentive, going on about how important it is for motorists to pay tolls, but Marcus is eventually able to drive off, Jennifer’s corpse undiscovered in the trunk, which is where he decides to keep it.

Toward the end we learn all this takes place in June of 1967, and there is one part that taps into the cool stuff of the day – namely, a heroin-high Marcus finds himself in a bona fide “psychedelic discotheque!” Here he dances with a “Eurasian girl” while colored lights splash on the walls and floor and whatnot. Speaking of good-looking gals, Marcus is curiously asexual…there’s zero exploitation of the few female characters and his flashsbacks of Jennifer are all sexless. Otherwise Marcus has no interest in the modern era and doesn’t like rock music or anything; again, the image is more of a young but still stuffy Niles Crane.

To make it all even worse, even the climax is rendered off-page; the last entry of Marcus’s “journal” is an excruciating bit of stream-of-consciousness that comes off like Rudy Wurlitzer’s Nog or Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot In The Head; unfortunately, here all the “big” stuff happens, like Jennifer’s corpse finally being discovered and Marcus being arrested, yet the gibberish prose sucks out all the drama and suspense. After this we get an even more excruciating chapter, this time courtesy Ornstein who relates how Marcus’s trial goes down and whatnot, but it too is so self-conscious and intentionally “literary.” But basically Marcus is arrested and tried on grounds of manslaughter and will spend the next few years in prison and under psychiatric care.

Anyway, Heir I guess is promising so far as the author’s talent goes, but the novel itself is unsatisfying; perhaps this is why the book fell out of print after this paperback edition and has, apparently, stayed that way. And speaking of which, this is another one that seems to go for absurd prices these days – I don’t even see this paperback edition listed anywhere – but I’d say the high prices are not justified by the actual content. Just get the original hardcover via Interlibrary Loan if you really want to read it.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

American Avenger #1: Beat A Distant Drum

American Avenger #1: Beat A Distant Drum, by Robert Emmett
January, 1982  Signet Books

Signet Books got in on the early ‘80s men’s adventure boom with American Avenger, which ran for five volumes and sported nice cover artwork. Unfortunately the titular character does not wear a Captain America-type costume, operate under the codemane American Avenger, or hell even wear a “USA” t-shirt at any point in this first novel…my asssumption is the series title was all courtesy Signet books, because otherwise the author himself is content to dole out a Robert Ludlum-esque thriller. The cover slugline “suspense packed international spy series” is more applicable to the actual content of the book.

As ever a big thanks to the Spy Guys And Gals site for the info that “Robert Emmett” was the pseudonym of a writer named Robert L. Waters (this series is so obscure it doesn’t even get a mention in Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Pulp Fiction). This explains the otherwise perplexing copyright of the book: “Waters Development Corporation of Broward County.” The book ends with a quick author bio which states that “Emmett” is the pseudonym of a former Air Force Intelligence officer who now lives in a small town in Florida…so then it’s Robert Waters of Broward County, Florida, hence the intentionally-goofy copyright.

Mike McVeigh is the hero of this series, a former Air Force Intelligence officer (hmmm…!) who has the usual studly looks of men’s adventure protagonists, only he has “shocks of white” in his black hair. But McVeigh’s nebbish cover guise has him hunching his shoulders and wearing thick glasses. He’s also an engineer, which means that his usual assignment has him going undercover and posing as such. So this setup alone is proof that this will not be a slam-bang sort of series. Oh, and McVeigh’s background, which turns out to be incidental to anything at all, has it that his mother was a Seminole princess. WTF? About the most we get out of this is McVeigh’s occasional condemnation of “the white man,” even though he himself is half-white…one of the curious prerequisites of these early men’s adventure series was that the protagonists had to have some American Indian blood or have been raised by Indians or whatever.

The plot of this first novel promises more of a sci-fi scenario than what is delivered; Walt Rosen, “dirty tricks” chief at the CIA, is given a report that a “particle beam” weapon has recently been fired at the moon. Who did it is a mystery, but Rosen suspects the Russians, of course (again, you can blame ‘em for anything…you don’t even need any evidence!). They’ve got some mining facility outside Berlin or something and that’s where Rosen figures the newfangled particle beam gizmo is. So Rosen does exactly what the reader expects…assigns Mike McVeigh to pose as an elevator designer at a Russian-owned company in Berlin!!

At this point the reader notices that the book runs to almost 190 pages of small and dense print, and wonders if perhaps there might be another novel to read instead. But there’s that promise of the moon-firing laser thing… But sadly the author is determined to turn out a “realistic” novel of spycraft, sprinkled with only the occasional bit of action – which by the way is mostly bloodless. There’s also some dirty stuff here and there, but even it is mostly handled in a conservative tone. Again the vibe is more of Ludlum or some other mainstream thriller. And by the way if you’ll notice, McVeigh isn’t even “avenging” anything in his assignment. It’s pretty sad when the first volume already puts the entire series concept in question.

McVeigh, who comes off in total cipher mode throughout, goes to Berlin under the cover name Dick Pelt. Seriously. Dick Pelt. There’s a lot of stuff about the East Berlin company “Pelt” is to construct an elevator for, as well as commentary and travelogue on Berlin. We also get a bit of sex action courtesy Lisel, hot secretary who is actually a spy for SSD, aka the Ministry for State Security. Her job entails screwing various bigwigs and secretly filming it, all under the comand of her Rosa Klebb-esque superior. Her expected sex scene with McVeigh is timid with the details and in fact happens off-page. The novel’s sole bit of humor has McVeigh feigning shock when, as “Dick Pelt,” he watches his sexual activities with Lisel onscreen, but secretly McVeigh wants to ask her for a copy of the tape!

One thing about McVeigh is that he keeps killing people without intending to; he takes out one of the BfV (aka German FBI) agents who jump Lisel and him one night. This all means that Lisel’s cover is blown, so the two escape on various planes and stay in airports and other page-filling banalities, only to return to Berlin…and for McVeigh to be promptly captured. At length he’s taken over to East Berlin and onto an expansive estate which we’re informed by egregious backstory was once owned by the Nazis. Here resides Marshal Kurkov, the Russian who wanted “Dick Pelt” to design his elevator. Kurkov has a sexy secretary of his own, Kebrina. This one we’ll learn is a KGB agent dubbed the “Golden Amazon” by her colleagues, due to her incredible looks and physical stamina, in particular in bed.

Kurkov is indeed the guy behind the particle beam weapon, which he’s dubbed the Devil’s Ray. But still the author denies us any pulpy stuff. Instead, the plot’s all about Kurkov wanting to defect to the US, hence his request for an American contractor, in particular Dick Pelt – for the real Dick Pelt is the son of a man with a lot of governmental clout in the US, and thus could help Kurkov defect. We get way too much arbitrary backstory about Kurkov, both in narrative and in dialog…even Kebrina fills in unecessary details on him for McVeigh. Also Kebrina is Kurkov’s daughter, even though she doesn’t know it, and Kurkov insists that McVeigh bring her over as well, even though she’s also unaware of this.

We also get the expected McVeigh-Kebrina conjugation, but this one too is kept off-page for the most part. We do at least get an actual knockdown, dragout fight to the death between McVeigh and Kebrina, something that usually doesn’t happen in the genre (usually another woman or some other quirk of fate takes out the female villain). This happens during a failed attempt at smuggling Kurkov over the Berlin Wall; it’s a setup, and McVeigh ends up fighting for his life against the “Golden Amazon.” Kurkov meanwhile is gone, which makes all that page-filling backstory on him so frustrating…honestly I hate it when authors waste time on backgrounds for minor characters in series fiction, ‘cause it’s a series, you know – we’re never going to see them again, so who cares??

The final quarter sees McVeigh reunited with Lisel, who turns out to be the member of an underground resistance movement. McVeigh’s got the blueprints for the Devil’s Ray, and Lisel promises to turn them over to the various media outlets so everyone will have them and one country won’t capitalize on the destructive technology. They spend some time at a members-only spa where they engage in more hot (off-page) lovin’, before we get to the overlong climax, which sees McVeigh, Lisel, and comrades escaping Berlin via train, which they take right through the Wall. 

Overall Beat A Distant Drum (the title being a reference to the mission name McVeigh is tasked with) is just too bland and padded…if you’re into Ludlum or other writers who stick to realistic Cold War details, it might be more your thing than it was mine. I’ve only got one other volume of the series (the second one), and this first installment didn’t have me chomping at the bit to track down the remaining three.