The Marksman #17: Killer On The Prowl, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1975 Belmont Tower
This volume of The Marksman seems to have been written by a committee, one that couldn’t agree on anything except that the book should be written in English. In one plot Philip “The Marksman” Magellan is in New York to take out a notorious Mafioso, and in another plot a trio of smalltime crooks kidnap that very same Mafioso for ransom. In a third plot the Mafioso’s “family” engage in internecine warfare to determine the new leader. And seldom do these three plots meet.
Once again a big thanks to Lynn Munroe, who revealed that Killer On The Prowl started life as a manuscript by Paul Hofrichter but was rewritten, perhaps by George Harmon Smith, a writer often used by series editor Peter McCurtin to fix up manuscripts. Harmon Smith’s presence is a guess on Lynn’s part, but the writing doesn’t seem to me the same as that in supposed Harmon Smith offerings, like Savage Slaughter.
Whereas Harmon Smith was given to almost literary flourishes, especially when compared to the genre average, the writing in Killer On the Prowl is stilted and bland, given over mostly to flat, declarative sentences. Lynn spoke with Hofrichter, and had him look over the novel. What’s strange is that Hofrichter remembered some of the stuff in Killer On The Prowl as things that had interested him at the time – rocket launchers, one of the settings, and such – but he didn’t recognize much in the book as being his own writing. So one wonders why his manuscript was even used…for example, the novel opens with Magellan in California and hating it; he wants to get back to action. Then he sees in the paper that infamous Mafia boss Vito Narducci is about to make a deal with the army on some new rocket launchers.
And yet, this is never mentioned again in the narrative; Magellan recognizes Narducci’s name and decides to head back East and kill him. First though he mails his guns to himself so he doesn’t have to worry about getting busted carrying them. The front and back cover copy refer to Narducci as “The Animal,” and have it that he’s been sicced on Magellan to finally take him down. But in the novel, Narducci comes off more like a businessman, running his empire from behind a desk. The author(s) clumsily inserts a reference to him being called “The Animal” by other mobsters, but this comes off as editorial emendation.
Narducci’s given an elaborate background overview first courtesy Magellan, who does his research on his target, and then in the section featuring the three punks who have decided to kidnap him. All this stuff seems to have come out of Mario Puzo and perhaps might be the work of some other writer other than Hofrichter or Harmon Smith; it’s certainly not the former. We also get inordinate backgrounds on the kidnappers, one of whom is a jockey – cue more page-filling stuff about one of his races.
Magellan is at his most cipher-like here, going about his motions in a matter-of-fact, almost robotic nature. Surely the intent is to make his actions appear even more savage, because this time Magellan does some crazy stuff, perhaps even more so than in the average Russell Smith installment…for even Russell Smith never had Magellan gun down defenseless women in cold blood. He also literally “fondles” his guns in the comfort of his hotel room. In other words he’s a deranged freak, and this author doesn’t even waste our time by introducing a female companion for him…this version of Magellan is more Terminator than human.
We learn Magellan’s been fighting the mob for two years. He doesn’t have the usual “artillery case” this time, but he’s got a ton of goodies, from pistols to submachine guns. He’s also got a “knee mortar,” one of the things Hofrichter told Lynn Munroe he was studying at the time; this is a WWII mortar that got its name because some soldiers mistakenly thought they could prop it on their knees or thighs when firing. Later Magellan gets some explosives from a dealer who operates out of a grocery store. There’s a lot of gun-talk and info on plastic explosives, as well as lots of detail on the scuba gear Magellan buys at a sports store for an underwater raid.
However it must be said that Magellan rarely appears in the book; it’s really given over to Narducci, the kidnappers, and various one-off characters. The trio of losers who kidnap Narducci are given the most narrative, followed by the underlings in Narducci’s family who vie for power. When Magellan appears, he’s in total robot mode, planning hits and buying the supplies needed for them. The author(s) studiously avoids giving Magellan any personality; we’re given modicum details about when or where he eats, or what he’s thinking. But we’re with him step by step as he haggles for plastic explosives or buys scuba gear for his hit on one of Narducci’s boats.
And as mentioned, Magellan is more ruthless than ever in this one. He starts assaulting Narducci’s places and possessions, not aware that the man himself has been kidnapped…blowing up those boats, shotgunning one of Narducci’s lieutenants in a drive-by, starting a fire in one of his sleazy hotels (though at least here Magellan gives the innocents a fighting chance for survival). It’s still surprising though when Magellan blows away a gaggle of hookers in Narducci’s employ as they walk across the street:
When [the hookers] were passing a group of darkened stores in the middle of the block, [Magellan] swung directly across the street towards them, lifted the machinegun and aimed it at them, as he used one hand to steer the car along.
The girls looked at him in amusement, thinking him to be a john, until they saw his submachinegun and screamed and began to scatter.
He fired in short bursts, watched them twist and turn and fall as the bullets chewed into their perfumed flesh. The girls fell down on the sidewalk and turned it red. He continuted to fire until his clip was empty. Then the car swung away from the lane in which it was in and went back into the lane in which Magellan had been driving. As he sped off, he looked into his rearview mirror. At least half a dozen bleeding forms lay on the sidewalk. He smiled.
When news of this got around no more dirty, little whores would be coming around to work for Vito Narducci.
Those poor hookers!! But seriously I think this is the most vile thing Magellan’s done in the series, which is really saying something. And of course note how he fires until he has an empty clip and then smiles…you don’t have to be Dr. Phil to realize the guy’s a fucking nutcase. And he’s the hero of the series! It’s for reasons like this that I’ll always prefer ‘70s men’s adventure novels to the ones from the ‘80s…they’re just so much crazier and more lurid.
Everything proceeds in the usual Marksman template, with unthrilling “action scenes” that entail Magellan shooting unarmed mobsters or blowing places up. This includes the “climax,” in which he takes care of a ton of guys with that knee mortar. But it’s all rendered so blandly that you could yawn and miss important events. Here’s a late action sequence, which demonstrates the meat and potatoes, “see Spot run” vibe of the prose – not to mention how “important characters” are so anticlimactically killed:
They saw Magellan and fired at him. He fired back. They sought cover. The two Mafioso saw them and assumed they were with Magellan and offering supporting fire. They turned and began to fire at the police.
Dunn lifted his pistol and fired two shots at them. Royden lifted his gun and fired. A lucky shot struck Dunn in the chest. He fell. Stemmer was at his side, pulling him towards the bushes as Wimark crouched and fired at the other men.
But Dunn never made it, he expired before they reached the bushes. Stemmer dropped him, shouted the news to Wimark and they ran into the bushes and up the street to take up a more favorable position.
And on it goes, with no dramatic thrust or impact upon the reader. This same sort of lifeless, juvenile prose marred Roadblaster, which makes me assume Hofrichter was responsible for a lot of the book, or at least the Magellan parts. And finally, any action series author who uses the word “expired” to describe a bad guy’s death needs to be sent to men’s adventure remedial school.