The Assassin, by Paul Ross
No month stated, 1974 Manor Books
I was under the impression this was another of those BCI Crime Paperbacks produced by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, given that “Paul Ross” was the same house name used for Engel’s Chopper Cop series. Also, I knew from Hawk’s Authors’s Pseudonyms that this particular “Paul Ross” was really William Crawford, who wrote many of those BCI Crime Paperbacks under various pseudonyms. But Engel’s name doesn’t appear in the copyright of The Assassin, so this was a solo Crawford affair.
However there are enough similarities to the Engel-produced Mafia: Operation Hitman, also published in 1974, that I began to wonder if The Assassin was actually a rejected manuscript that Crawford sold to Manor. In other words, perhaps The Assassin started life as Mafia: Operation Hitman but Engel didn’t feel it was up to snuff…perhaps because the Mafia’s not in it, and also because there’s more about flying than there is about assassinating. Honestly, a more accurate title for this novel would be “The Pilot.”
Otherwise, this is certainly the most streamlined Crawford novel I’ve yet read. Whereas all the others have suffered from constant stalling, repetition, and arbitrary info-dumping, The Assassin moves at an assured pace and pretty much sticks to linear events, focused solely on our titular character, Lance Martin, with only occasional detours into the backgrounds of various one-off characters. The only thing that sinks the book is all the damn flying material. I’m not joking when I tell you that the second half of the novel is mostly concerned with Lance flying a new plane.
Egregious flying material is a Crawford hallmark, as is a bitter, mean-spirited “hero” who does his best to piss off everyone, including the reader. Another hallmark, again on display here, is the Hemingwayesque machismo of the protagonist, who does all those manly things of yore. And again we have the Mexican setting, right on the border of Mexico – and as ever we’re not told precisely which state the novel occurs in, though you can guess it’s New Mexico a la Stryker and some of Crawford’s other work. But one thing missing this time is a character shitting himself – typically that’s a William Crawford staple.
The cover photo of the faux-Oswald (or whoever really killed Kennedy) sighting down with his mail-order rifle is misleading; Lance (as Crawford refers to his anti-hero throughout), like the protagonist in Mafia: Operation Hitman, makes his jobs look like accidents. We see him in action in a suspenseful opening sequence; following a convoluted payment scheme, in which cases of money are dropped into the field of a farm house he owns near San Antonio, Lance leaves his main home in Mazatlan and heads for Los Angeles. Here he kills an advertising bigwig at a football game, making it look like a heart attack.
Lance has been a professional assassin for fifteen years, and next Crawford shows us his origin story. Born to a hardscrabble life in some unstated Southern city, Lance grew up tough and mean, then was shipped off to Korea. He came back on a football scholarship and ended up marrying the Homecoming Princess (referred to as “The Princess” throughout). A leg injury cost him his football career and scholarship, so eventually Lance got onto the police force in the fictional town of Frontera, confusingly enough right across the border from a town in Mexico of the same name.
But Frontera, Lance learned, was a “controlled town,” with vice and unchecked corruption to the highest levels. Lance, not long after joining the force, gave a ticket to the latest girlfriend of some Frontera VIP, and after this his life went to hell thanks to pressure from the corrupt town leaders. After various mishaps Lance started fighting back, which made things worse; an informant turned out to be the ringleader of a sting operation, and, just like Colin Stryker, Lance was set up on various charges and sent off to prison for three years. Also, like Stryker, Lance has a disabled daughter, but this one’s disabled from mental problems “caused by a father who is a dirty cop,” per the Princess in the divorce papers she files soon after Lance’s incarceration.
This entire sequence is well written, but comes off like a retread for anyone who read Stryker #1, as it’s basically the same story. Lance gets out of prison – where he learned such handy con skills as disguise and flying an airplane(!) – and goes about getting some old-fashioned revenge. He scores big when he takes out the informant who was really behind the sting, finding money stashed all over the guy’s house. This is used to get Lance’s daughter out of a state-run hellhole insane asylum and into a better private facility. Humorously, nothing more is said about the daughter, or what happened to her, even though all this is fifteen years ago, and thus the girl would be 20 or so during the time in which the main events of The Assassin take place.
Crawford as ever makes strange writing decisions…we’ll get chapters and chapters of Lance executing various moves in one of his planes, but when Lance skins alive one of the men who set him up, Crawford leaves the act off-page. Anyway an old judge contacts Lance about a year after he begins his revenge mission; the same judge who sent Lance off to prison for three years. He claims to know Lance is the man who has killed the other plotters, and pleads that he himself was forced into the sting; the judge is gay, and compromising photos are being used to frame him. This is the man that brings Lance into the professional killing game, setting him up with jobs and arranging his payment methods. The first kill, naturally, is of the guy who is blackmailing the judge.
Lance Martin is definitely an asshole, as is mandatory for any Crawford hero, but he lacks even any basic compassion. Crawford only slightly studies the mentality that could make a person a professional killer; we’re told that Lance just feels nothing at all for the people he kills, which is something he himself doesn’t try to understand. We do learn that he no longer takes jobs in which the target is a woman. He’s killed two of them, and apparently this is what’s caused him to suffer a strange sort of impotence.
In a subplot so arbitrary it was clearly shoehorned into the narrative to meet an editorial request, Lance we learn can’t climax when he has sex. In Mazatlan he’s known as a high roller, and a guy at the nearest posh restaurant often fixes Lance up with busty babes who are vacationing in town. We get a lot of “big tits” exploitation as Lance checks out the latest babe’s impressive equipment, but as ever Crawford leaves the sex off-page. But Lance still can’t orgasm, much to the woman’s dismay (in a nice bit Lance muses that he’s the “compleat assassin,” in that he “kills” something in these women, taking away from them the one thing they thought they could make any man do).
Nothing else is said about this condition for the rest of the novel. As we’ll recall, the protagonist of Mafia: Operation Hitman suffered from a similar sexual condition, also due to his killing of female targets, and eventually had to resort to sadomasochism to get off. This bit was what made me suspect that The Assassin was Crawford’s attempt at writing that Mafia: Operation installment. I know that in most cases Engel gave his ghostwriters a treatment or outline to follow, so Mafia: Operation Hitman certainly had a requirement that the protagonist not be able to get his rocks off due to subconscious guilt over murdering women – this would explain why Lance’s condition suddenly comes up (so to speak), is made into a big deal for a few pages, and then abruptly dropped.
Anyway “the old fruit judge” died years ago, and now Lance handles his own jobs, ensuring that his identity is never uncovered by prospective clients. We’re often reminded how two former clients tried to rip him off, and suffered fatally for it. But sadly these flashback kills are all the “assassin” stuff we get in the novel. For midway through Lance is offered a contract to kill a populist politician named Elmore “Josey” Josephsen who threatens to change the course of American politics with his massive public support. This becomes the main and only assassination job Crawford focuses on for the rest of the novel.
That and a whole helluva lot of flying. Crawford was buds with fellow Pinnacle author Mark Roberts, himself a pilot (or at least an armchair pilot), and these two writers are similar in how they shoehorn interminable flying sequences into their novels in a gambit to fill pages. It’s almost like showing off, really. “You wanna read about a professional assassin or a lone wolf mob-buster? Sorry, pal – I’m a pilot, so you’re gonna read about airplanes!”
So we have this overlong heist of a twin-engine aircraft Lance wants, followed by a lot of flying maneuvers. However the plane does at least factor into his assassination plan – at length Lance decides to take the Josephen job, mostly because the political figure is going to appear at a rally in Frontera, and standing beside him at the speech will be the town Mayor: Jeffrey Woodhull, one of the men who framed Lance all those years ago. And the only one of them Lance never got to kill. A former bigwig cop, Woodhull lives under such security that Lance gave up all hope of killing him. But now he’ll be out in the open with Josephsen, so it would be the veritable two birds.
There’s almost as much haggling as there is flying; Lance keeps calling the mysterious group that offered the Josephsen contract, demanding a million from them. This takes a few calls and Lance is pretty persuasive, but I personally wouldn’t recommend calling potential clients things like “butt-mouth.” Our hero is in total asshole mode during these phone calls, lending the sequences a darkly humorous touch. He also goes on wild rants about how these men claim they want to kill Josephsen in order to “save the country,” but in reality they don’t give a good damn about the country or its people; they just want to protect their own interests. Josephsen is not aligned with either political party, nor the corrupt “uniparty” which controls both parties behind the scenes, thus he has become enemy number one to the media, even though he was beloved by the media just a few years before. I experienced severe déjà vu as I read this part.
Lance gets the agreement for a million payoff and goes about planning the hit. At least his plane factors into it; he’s gonna take Josephsen and Woodhall out with a minigun! Yes, Lance just happened to buy a minigun years ago and has it lying around in his home in Mexico. He’s got all kinds of weapons, but sadly he doesn’t use any of them in the course of the book. And also the Josephsen stuff, while built up and seemingly promising more development, is pretty much dropped at this point; the book’s more about Lance stealing that damn plane, prepping himself for the job, and handling the hit in the final pages – no personal confrontation with either Josephsen or Woodhull.
Crawford drops enough foreshadowing throughout the book that the reader can suspect where it’s all headed. I did like the subtle way Lance’s hardcore drinking factored into the climax. We’re often told Lance learned from professional athletes to get super drunk two nights before a hit, leaving him edgy and angry. We’re also told that Lance’s doctor has told him the drinking is getting too heavy and will have repercussions on Lance’s mind and health. We see this proven in the finale, though Crawford doesn’t beat us over the head with it. Basically, Lance has overlooked several things due to his drinking, not realizing he’s goofed until it’s too late.
Also Lance’s thorough attention to detail, upon which he prides himself, causes him much misfortune. Not that the reader feels too bad for him, as Lance actually takes out a ton of innocents in his hit – he’s got tracers interspersed with the minigun ammo, and uses them to lock in on Josephsen and Woodhull on the review stand. Too bad for the crowd standing in front of the stand as Lance lines up the hammering spray of bullets – 300 rounds a second, we’re told. He leaves utter devastation in his wake, but this is only relayed via a radio report he listens to in the cockpit. The climax plays out on a tense, gripping sequence as Lance tries to escape from his sinking plane. I mean even in the friggin’ climax the plane is more important to the story than the assassination, but at least it’s very suspenseful.
I think this was my favorite Crawford novel yet, though it lacked the casual brutality of his other novels, such as The Chinese Connection or The Cop-Killers. I think I liked this one mostly because Crawford stuck to a single storyline and for the most part followed a beginning, middle, and end structure, without all the random stalling of his other books. But the egregious flying stuff was annoying. The book did inspire me to start calling people “butt-mouth” more often, though.