Monday, March 30, 2020

Bad Guy

Bad Guy, by Nicholas Brady
No month stated, 1977  Belmont-Tower

“Nicholas Brady” was a Belmont Tower/Leisure Books house name used by a variety of contract writers; Len Levinson served as “Brady” for Inside Job. Bad Guy isn’t by Len, though, and although the identity of the author has never been officially confirmed I’m fairly certain it was George Harmon Smith. Thanks to the trailblazing research of Lynn Munroe we know that Harmon Smith was a contract writer often used by BT/Leisure editor Peter McCurtin, and the narrative style of Bad Guy is identical to those installments of Marksman and Sharpshooter (ie This Animal Must DieSavage Slaughter) that Lynn has designated as being by George Harmon Smith: literary but very overwritten.

To wit, Bad Guy opens with some weatherbeaten redneck deputy in Georgia, maintaining law and order at a stock car race, and as with those other Smith books it just goes and on and with the pointless detailing of every single thing the hayseed does. I mean the writing’s good and all, it’s just flabby, and the author clearly doesn’t know when some judicious editing is necessary. That being said, this opening does feature the oddball moment of the deputy shoving some guy’s face into a pile of shit; this sort of random nastiness is another George Harmon Smith hallmark, as evidenced by his other books, and I’m even more certain he might’ve been the mystery author who wrote Bronson: Blind Rage – which by the way is still one of my very favorite novels I’ve ever reviewed on here.

As Zwolf so succinctly put it, Bad Guy is a “Grade-B sleazy crime novel,” clearly catering to the spate of Southern action films going on at the time; you could easily see Burt Reynolds (or Joe Don Baker if you don’t have the budget) as protagonist Jake Colby, shit-kicking stock car racer and former Syndicate stringer. Actually he has a much darker side than any Reynolds character; the BT house ads claim Jake Colby is “in the tradition of Gator McCloskey [sp],” ie the “hillbilly hoodlum” Reynolds portrayed in White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976). But he’s a stone-cold killer with a sadistic streak. Harmon Smith (I’m just going to proceed with the theory that the novel truly is by him) implies that Colby’s casual mercilessness is due to his wife and toddler son being killed in a car bomb six years before, a car bomb that was meant for Colby. But damn, that’s not nearly enough to explain away some of the sadistic stuff he does in this novel.

To tell the truth, the hicksploitation stuff really isn’t much exploited nor integral to the plot. There are no “Southern” quirks to Colby and he comes off no different than any other Belmont Tower anti-hero. The action mostly occurs in Georgia, the Bayou, and Vegas, but other than a couple Creole characters there’s no real attempt at making this a Dixie-fried actioner. The opening sequence is the closest approximation to this, with an overly-detailed stock race in Georgia serving as our introduction to Colby. This will be the only stock car race in the book, but it displays the same style Harmon Smith brings to the rest of the novel: inordinate scene-setting and word-painting, but with very good characterization and dialog. Seriously, the guy was like the John Gardner of BT/Leisure (I mean the John Gardner of Michelsons Ghosts, not the British John Gardner who took over the James Bond books in the ‘80s).

Before we get into the meat of the review, I’d like to clarify that I really did enjoy Bad Guy. It’s certainly more entertaining and better written than the majority of the blockbuster crime novels of the ‘70s, or at least ones that were published in hardcover and received industry reviews. I mean it’s a lot more enjoyable than The Devalino CaperThe Anderson Tapes, or Golden Gate Caper. The main characters are three-dimensional and there are memorable oddball touches to most of the minor characters that you remember long after you’ve finished the book. It’s just that the damn overwriting sinks it; the Gardner comparison again comes to mind. Anyone who has read (or tried to read) Nickel Mountain or The Sunlight Dialogs will know what I’m talking about; just an insurmountable barrage of needless topical description. Each and every chapter begins with elaborate scene-setting, and every menial gesture or action of the characters is stated; Colby smokes about a bujillion cigarettes in the novel, and we’re told every single time he tosses aside a butt and lights a fresh one. This makes the book seem like a slog at times, because it gears up to be so great, then stalls with unecessary bouts of page-filling. 

Anyway when we meet Jake Colby he’s a stock car racer in the south, a mostly-broken guy who is ready to blow into violent action at any moment. He’s approached by two hoods, Scalise and Blaustein, who claim to be representatives for Peaches Angella, Colby’s old boss in the Syndicate. Gradually we’ll learn that part of Peaches’s portfolio was heroin, which Colby ran for him. Then some interloper named Gazzara came onto the scene and started taking over Peaches’s territory, killing off his various underbosses. This is how Colby’s wife and son were killed, blown up in a car bomb meant to take out Colby. But that was six years ago, and Colby’s out of the life, and Peaches is calling in old favors and wants Colby to come out of retirement for one last job.

Before that we get a taste of our hero’s sadism; he meets Scalise and Blaustein at a bar, and after the two thugs leave, Colby is hassled by a couple corncobs who give him a hard time for drinking soda instead of beer. Rather than walk away, Colby wades into the three of them, beats them to burger, then lines them up and drives over them. All because they said a few curt words to him. It’s insane, and again all very similar to Bronson: Blind Rage in its tone of ruthless brutality. So too is the relationship Colby eventually forms with a young Creole girl, their dialog very reminiscent of the dialog Bronson has with the young Latina girl in Blnd Rage. And finally, the word “focussed” appears here, same as in Blind Rage, so my proposition is that the same author wrote Bad Guy, and that author was George Harmon Smith. Or it was Aaron Fletcher, who also served as “Nicholas Brady,” but I’m going with Smith because the book is too similar to those Marksman and Sharpshooter installments Lynn Munroe identified as being by him.

But after this random bit of sadism Colby’s legacy of brutality sort of simmers for the rest of the novel, as he’s more busy putting together the getaway portion of Peaches’s job. Peaches you see wants to hit Gazzara where it hurts, robbing the vault in his Vegas casino and making off with as much of the two million therein as possible. Colby will be in charge of getting the heisters to freedom, and to that end he has basically a blank check to have a hopped-up car put together for him. Colby also suggests the use of “chunkers,” ie the bottom feeders of the underworld – people so poor they actually jump in front of cars, acting as decoys. As with most heist novels the plotting and planning of the actual heist takes the brunt of the narrative, with the heist itself occuring over a few frantic pages toward the very end of the novel.

What makes Bad Guy so interesting is the otherwise-arbitrary situations and characters Harmon Smith introduces into the text. For example, shortly after meeting with Peaches, Colby’s relaxing in his hotel room when there’s a knock at his door. It’s a gorgeous, well-built brunette named Ginger who has been sent over by Peaches to keep Colby company. But what would be a throw-away hardcore scene in a lesser novel is here built into a fuller relationship, with Ginger not a hooker but a housewife whose husband is in the hospital with some disease and she’s desperate for money, so she took the job. And Colby’s gruff with her, not wanting any sex tonight – there’s already been some off-page hanky-panky earlier, with Colby doing, and them dumping, some never-named woman he’s been living with the past couple months. But Ginger in her innocence brings Colby out of his shell, with the author successfully doling out three-dimensional characterization for both of them. In particular for Colby, as we see he suffers recurring nightmares of the day his wife and son were killed.

And then…Colby leaves the hotel next morning and Ginger’s never mentioned again. (And also the sex between them is off-page, for anyone out there taking notes – all the sex is off-page in this one, curiously.) There are all these random bits of characterization throughout the novel which are given so much initial focus and then unceremoniously dropped. The stuff with the clunkers is another case in point. Colby heads into Harlem to hire a renowned clunker, a smashed-up black guy who lives in a tenement building and is so poor that his kids rent out their rooms to local hookers. This guy brings in two more clunkers, both of them just as memorable: one of them, also black, speaks in overly-formal terms, and the other, a Hispanic guy, is so brain-addled from his clunking that he’s become a mindless robot for the woman who controls him. There’s more of that random sadism as the poor guy eagerly bashes his own head into a hotel room wall at the woman’s order. All these characters and more – even the inside man on the heist who has “the unmistakable drawl of the homosexual” – are built up at the expense of dense paragraphs, and then dropped from the narrative with little fanfare.

My favorite of all these arbitrary characters and situations is the bitter old Mafia consigliere Colby visits a little past the halfway mark of the book. Confined to home care with a “crazy woman” serving as his nurse, the old man is filled with hate, particularly toward Colby – as it turns out that Colby’s dead wife was the consigliere’s daughter. The old man blames Colby for the loss of his daughter and grandson, but Colby, undeterred, bullies the old man into getting some info. Through various plot developments, Colby has learned that there might be more to this heist than Peaches has let on, and the old consigliere would be able to find out with his connections in the Syndicate. Harmon Smith’s tongue is firmly in cheek as the consigliere gets increasingly irrational and furious with Colby, culiminating in the unforgettable line: “Go die, so crazy woman can pour my shit and piss on your grave.”

Colby heads into the Bayou for the getaway car, hiring a poor Creole auto repairman to build a custom vehicle. But the man’s niece turns out to be more important to the narrative: Camille, a hot-tempered Creole girl in her twenties who speaks poor English and who has waist-length black hair. With her fiery temper mixed with her innocent nature, she is as mentioned very similar to the girl in Bronson: Blind Rage. As is the budding relationship between her and Colby, which is almost G-rated given the tone of the rest of the novel. The old auto mechanic is glad to get rid of the quarrelsome girl, but Colby finds himself falling for her – again, unexpected character depth and character building. That being said, man there’s a lot of padding with Colby and Camille. Even late in the game, right before the heist we’ve been waiting a couple hundred pages for, there’s an interminable sequence of them going camping in the Bayou. But it’s true love, Camille even giving Colby her virginity – as we learn after the off-page sex scene.

Colby’s trick car is cool but doesn’t get exploited enough. Per his specific demands, it’s a junked-up old Chevy that has the guts of a Jaguar, and we get a lot of gearhead dialog about the various modifications to the engine and whatnot. Cooler yet are the touches the mechanic adds from his days of doing up cars for moonshiners, like a bucket filled with nail-balls that can be dropped into the path of pursuing vehicles. Colby also goes to various lengths to plot out the getaway, including getting a machine gun and stashing out a boat and a second getaway car in a place Peaches doesn’t know about. For as the back cover has so brazenly spoiled for us, Colby’s planning his own cross, having learned that the entire thing is a setup courtesy Peaches.

The heist goes down in just a few tense pages, but here Harmon Smith is lean and mean with the prose. And humorously whereas before we were informed almost relentlessly of pedantic actions and gestures, here bigger revelations are spun out with nonchalance – like the fact that Camille is a stone-cold killer. Colby’s brought her into the heist due to her ability to scale and climb obstacles, a needed skill in the heist of Gazzara’s vault. But once her part’s done Camille’s brought out a revolver and is blowing away cops and guards with ease. In fact she kills several police officers in the final pages, toting the M-16 Colby has acquired. Colby, his heist double-cross carried out with finesse, heads up the getaway, and this too is a fun, tense scene, complete with those nail-balls in use. But Harmon Smith seems to forget about the Chevy’s changeable paint job that he so heavily built up in the narrative; another of the old man’s tricks, a plastic sheen will fly off the car when the speed gets up to fifty m.p.h, with a different-color paint job beneath.

It appears that Bad Guy is relatively scarce and overpriced, but I’ll try to refrain from total spoilers. I will say the novel heads for the exact conclusion the reader expects; there’s already been skillful foreshadowing throughout, like Colby’s admission that he’s afraid to die. But once the heist is done, Harmon Smith decides he wants to do more of a Bonnie and Clyde thing. Even though he and Camille have the chance to get away scot-free, with all the money, Colby can’t let Peaches go unpunished; of course, he’s learned that Peaches was responsible for the death of Colby’s wife and son. So Colby and Camille stash the cash and slip into Peaches’s fortified mansion for a little revenge. This is another tense scene, which might play out a little too quickly, but then when you’re dispensing bloody payback with a .357 Magnum, like Colby is, there really isn’t much opportunity to draw out the kill.

But as ever Harmon Smith is unpredictable, with Colby’s vengeance sated but having a surprise conclusion, and the climax itself involves a tense standoff between Camille and the cops. In other words we’re headed for that mandatory downer ‘70s ending, but then it was only expected given that our “heroes” just wasted several cops in the heist and chase. Harmon Smith instead focuses again on Camille’s childlike love for Colby, even while bullets are flying around them. It’s an effective, memorable finale, and again reminiscent of Bronson: Blind Rage; indeed, Bad Guy features the exact sort of ending Blind Rage seemed to be headed for, but of course didn’t, because it was the start of a series and all.

Overall though I really enjoyed Bad Guy. It’s certainly too long, with way too much flab that could’ve been cut, but at its core it’s a mean, tense ‘70s crime thriller that should’ve received more attention. And the author, whether it was George Harmon Smith or not, is definitely skilled, giving us a lot more character depth and random plot quirkiness than might be expected from a Belmont Tower publication about a “hillbilly hoodlum.”


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Interesting oddity! Any cover artist credit in that one?

Joe Kenney said...

Yes, it's signed by Ken Barr. The signature is to the right of Colby on the cover, you just can't see it on my blurry cover scan! Thanks for the comment!

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Ah, thanks, Joe! I love Ken Barr's paperback cover and men's adventure mag artwork!

Brian Drake said...

Darn it now I have that Billie Eyelash song stuck in my head....