Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Doctor Orient (aka Doctor Orient #1)


Doctor Orient, by Frank Lauria
September, 1970  Bantam Books

I first learned about this series several years ago, thanks to Curt Purcell’s glowing reviews on The Groovy Age Of Horror. (Anyone know what happened to Curt?) I picked up most of the books afterward but just never got around to reading this first installment…until now! Very much along the lines of The Mind Masters, Doctor Orient handles occult, ESP, and related environs in a serious manner. There might be a little more action in The Mind Masters, but the characters in this one are more likable and, more importantly, there’s more of a period flavor, with even a “psychedelic discotheque” acting as the headquarters of a group of Satanists.

I went in assuming series protagonist Dr. Owen Orient would be a Doctor Strange type, a master of the mystic arts and all that. Rather, while he’s studied all manner of arcana, familiar with spirits and spells and casually talking about his past lives, he’s really more focused on ESP. In this capacity he’s put together a small group of “pilgrims” who meet in his three-story pad on Riverside Drive in New York and work on their psychic skills, the goal to eventually reach out to the rest of the world. Lauria seems to have been inspired by the pulps of the ‘30s, with Orient having a very pulpy flair: he’s always dressed in white, and his “long” black hair has a skunk-like streak of white running through it. He’s got a mansion, a vintage auto, a butler, and a retinue of helpers, all just like some hero of a ‘30s pulp. The only thing he lacks is a true love-type, though in this first installment we get a muddled backstory about a girl he was in love with in one of those previous lives. That’s about on the level of “my girlfriend lives in Canada,” though.

At 200+ pages of small, dense print, Doctor Orient is one of those novels that takes a little longer to read than you might first suspect. And as is typical with such books, a lot of it could’ve been whittled out. There’s a bit too much repetition, and Orient doesn’t prove himself to be the most capable of protagonists this first time out. I read somewhere that Lauria’s intent was to deliver a “nonviolent hero,” or something to that effect, but unfortunately this gives us a hero who spends most of the narrative sitting around in his pad and meditating, chanting, or staring at the lit end of his cigarette while in deep thought (something he does so much you could make a drinking game out of it…or I guess a smoking game would be more apt). Even the climax is handled with chanting and visionary trips through the astral plane, and this is another thing The Mind Masters did better, with the hero using his mental powers to wreak physical havoc.

The action of this first installment ceters around a Satanic cult led by a black mage called Susej (Jesus backwards, though I don’t think any of the characters make this connection); as mentioned the cult operates out of a cheap-looking psychedelic club in New York called the Seventh Door. There’s a great part that’s borderline rock novel territory where a haughty and hotstuff sixteen year-old babe with mental powers (which she uses to always get her way) ventures inside and watches the house band play; their psychedelic rock, as Lauria describes it, sounds along the lines of Syd-era Pink Floyd. Unfortunately this rock stuff doesn’t take up much of the narrative space, but we do eventually learn that the girl, Addison Tracey, begins singing with the group, even recording albums in the club’s studio booth – plus there’s the cool period detail of the psychedelic lights in the club flashing in time with the music. Sadly no bodypainted go-go dancers are mentioned.

The lead singer is a silver-eyed guy named Seth, who turns out to be a sort of headhunter for the cult, seeking out people with similar mental powers. He initiates Addison into the cult, which entails a black mass – again, much more sleazily and pulpily demonstrated in The Mind Masters #2 – culminating with Addison having sex with a demon. And speaking of which, Lauria’s never too graphic with the exploitative material, more concerned with the occult power Addison will be provided with in exchange for her soul. The back cover has it that Addison will go on to act as a seductress in the Seventh Door, luring wealthy and influential men into the cult’s snare, but sadly the book leaves this as more of a minor detail, and worse yet Addison is pretty much dropped from the narrative. Same goes for Seth, who seems to be built up as Susej’s henchman, but doesn’t even appear in the climactic confrontation. I was actually into this psychedelic club/rock group stuff more than anything else in the novel, but sadly Lauria spends much more time with Owen and his comrades meditating, venturing onto the astral plane, and staring at the burning ends of their cigarettes.

Orient’s circle is relatively small, and surprisingly doesn’t have the “strong female character” demanded in modern entertainment/engineering. There’s Hap, a baseball player who left the group three months ago because he couldn’t handle the vibes, Argyle, a famous black actor who sports a big Afro, and Levi, a hirsute dentist. There’s also Sordi, Orient’s butler, who asks to be brought into the group’s fold so he can help them in their ESP struggles, and finally a bishop named Redson, who despite not being comfortable with reincarnation and all that jazz still has a pretty firm grasp of occult spells and demon-casting. He actually plays a more central role in the fight with Susej than any of the others; Levi is lost in the narrative fold, and Argyle’s big sequence has him venturing solo to the Seventh Door…and easily getting caught by Susej. Humorously, our hero Dr. Orient is unable to even save Argyle, being made a fool of on national TV by Susej, and Argyle has to free himself. As I say, Orient isn’t the most heroic of protagonists.

Orient comes into the action through Hap, who returns to the group with a big problem – three months ago he hooked up with a lovely brunette named Malta, and they went around doing ESP readings and the like. But now Malta’s fallen into a mysterious, almost supernatural coma. Orient ventures into “hyper-space,” not to be confused with the astral plane, and there detects a massive evil force which has ensnared Malta’s soul. Here he also learns – via too-long flashback sequences – that he and Malta were lovers in a past life. Frustratingly, Malta never even really appears in the book; she’s comatose the entire time, then her slumbering form has been stolen from Orient’s pad, and then we find out she’s dead, and then Orient and his comrades are fighting to save her soul from being consumed.

Lauria has clearly read up on the occult subjects – and he informs us of this fact in the “about the author” bio at the end – so we do get a lot of chanting and prayer circles and people flashing on a gold swastika in blue light for protection, the latter which sort of upsets Redson until he’s informed the swastika symbolized holy power long before the cross. Meanwhile Susej, who turns out to be a former religious schoolmate of Redson’s named D’Te, plots to take over the world for “the Clear One.” Thanks to some modern thinking by Seth, Susej begins appearing on TV to heal people; in particular he becomes a regular on Joe Kirk’s late night TV talk show – a clear take on Johnny Carson (back when he was still in New York), with the difference being that we’re informed Kirk uses his show to make fun of people. Johnny was nothing if not respectful to his guests, except when he was jamming egg yolks in Burt Reynolds’s face.

And see that’s one of the problems with Doctor Orient. The third quarter features lots of scenes of our heroes sitting around and watching TV, complaining about how quickly Susej is attaining power; people now flock to him as a guru with supernatural healing powers, which is all part of Susej’s plan of domination. There’s no action, per se, save for when Susej sends a couple poltergeists over to Orient’s place to tear it up. Our heroes run away and stay in Redson’s rectory. Also as mentioned Argyle tries to take matters into his own hands toward the end, but gets caught, which entails lots of WTF? bits on the astral plane where animals chase him and whatnot; there’s also a part earlier on where Orient ventures into the astral plane and is lured into a sort of venus flytrap section which almost kills him.

The finale builds toward a big confrontation, but it lacks much verve. Susej, who has already magickally bitch-slapped Orient on TV at Joe Kirk’s show, plans a big event, and Orient and team converge on the scene to chant and pray away. Instead of physical confrontation it plays off on the metaphysical tip, with a resolution to Orient and Malta’s eternal love. Lauria ends the novel almost abruptly, which is odd given the preceding pages of too much repetition and stalling; Susej, defeated on the astral plane, collapses, his worldly following crushed, and Orient just stands there looking. At any rate he was to return soon enough; I have most of the books that followed, and here’s hoping they are a bit more spirited (no pun intended).

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Doomsday Warrior #14: American Death Orbit


Doomsday Warrior #14: American Death Orbit, by Ryder Stacy
September, 1988  Zebra Books

Okay so at this point in the Doomsday Warrior saga Ryder Syvertsen is straight-up writing juvenile fiction, like Tom Swift for the post-nuke subgenre. The juvenile tone has been there from the beginning, but at least the earliest volumes spiced things up with gory violence and hardcore sex. But with American Death Orbit Syvertsen greatly reduces the former and barely caters to the latter – redhead beauty Rona returns to the series, the first we’ve seen her since the twelfth volume, but she only appears long enough for some off-page shenanigans with Ted “Doomsday Warrior” Rockson in the beginning.

That’s another thing: early volumes couldn’t figure out if Rockson’s nickname was “Doomsday Warrior” or “The Ultimate American.” In fact it was the latter that was most often used, but I guess at this point Syvertsen realized he should follow, you know, the title of the series, so it’s “Doomsday Warrior” throughout, with Ultimate American not used even once. These things only matter if you’ve read the previous 13 volumes and are taking notes, though. Last volume I wondered if Syvertsen was giving us arbitrary dates for these adventures, and this volume seems to indicate that he indeed is: we’re informed that American Death Orbit occurs in 2096, which means that the previous volume did not take place three years after volume twelve.

But then, it’s hard to tell how long ago American Paradise was. Rockson’s again in Century City when we meet him, of course, with no indication of how long ago the adventure in Hawaii was. I figured it must’ve been a month, maybe a few weeks. But as we’ll recall, the previous volume climaxed with evil Colonel Killov abducted by a spaceship. We gradually learn that this happened two days ago, meaning this volume occurs immediately after the previous. Yet in the Rockson sequences, it’s as if a long time has passed…but it’s especially moronic because the established template of the series has it that Rockson and team endure a hellish long journey to get wherever they’re going when they leave Century City. So are we to undrestand that the journey back is a breeze? 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. I mean Rockson lost his ‘brid (aka the mutant “hybrid” horses of this post-nuke future) many volumes ago, yet the thing showed up again with zero explanation. And it appears again this time: “Snorter-the-fourth,” we’re told its name is, leading one to presume it is a descendant of the original Snorter, but Rockson thinks to himself how he has relied on the beast “for several years.” So I guess it’s the same Snorter. Anyway in this one too Snorter will be left in the wild, but we at least get the semblance of some setup explanation when Rockson points it and the other ‘brids “toward Century City” (hundreds of miles away, btw) and tells them to take off. They have mutant talent for direction, we’re told, so no one will be surprised when Snorter miraculously returns in some future volume.

Speaking of returns, as mentioned Rona finally shows up again. We don’t get to see her much, though, and she’s reintroduced to the series with little fanfare; Rockson mutters over the tough judo workout Rona gave him earlier that day, then goes back to his quarters to find her waiting in his bed for him. And you know it occurs to me just now that Rockson’s other true love, Kim, hasn’t been seen since the ninth volume (though we did see an alternate reality version of her in the tenth volume). My assumption at this point is that she’s not coming back, and presumably Syvertsen got bored with her. Rona’s the much more interesting character, at any rate: a redheaded beauty with the same “mutant star pattern” as Rockson. Believe it or not, folks, but the sex scene is off-page…Rockson and Rona exchange some foreplay dialog and it fades to black. And after that Rona begs to come along on this latest mission – as she has in the past – but Rockson refuses, saying it’s too dangerous.

And indeed, Rockson takes off the very next morning: the latest threat has it that some Century City astronomers – just introduced this very volume – have spotted something strange up in space with their telescope, which was installed five years ago (but never mentioned before, of course). Wouldn’t you know it, but there’s a giant space station lurking up there, a wheel design a la 2001 A Space Odyssey, and it’s about five miles large. And there are space ships and what not flying all around it! Yes, all this is introduced via bald exposition; fourteen volumes in and we suddenly learn there’s a teeming population in outer space – and guess what, Schecter, the head Century City scientist, predicts that they only have about a week until the space station is activated.

Schecter also informs Rockson that a few years back they came across a cache of NASA documentation which revealed that this space station was developed “late in the twentieth century” as part of the Star Wars Missile Defense System. And if this thing is fully activated it will have laser cannons and whatnot that can rain hell on the Earth below. But there’s still hope: also according to those NASA discs, shortly before the nuclear war there was designed – and built – a massive starfighter, dubbed the “The Dynosoar Satellite Killer,” which could take out a space station if necessary. And meanwhile we readers know – from the brief opening part with Killov – that the space station is occupied by “Space Neo-Nazis,” descendants of a former Nazi who worked for NASA and started his own project “on the side,” sending out teams of Nazis into space before the war. And now the descendants of these Nazis live in the space station and have just decided to complete it and destroy the Earth. I mean my friends, there was more “realism” in the average episode of G.I. Joe.

So Rockson, who like everyone else on the planet has never even been to space, puts together a team that will head to Wyoming, where the Dynosoar was stored by NASA, get it operative, head into space, and destroy the space station before the space Nazis can fully activate it. But of course, several scientists have “already studied” the full plans of the space station and the Dynosoar, and what’s more have even built flight simulators for it. So Rockson will have to bring these scientists along so they can actually fly the plane. Of course they’re all redshirts, Syvertsen not even bothering to give most of them names, save for the two that rise to the top: Rajat, a brilliant twenty year-old Indian kid, and Connors, a sixteen year-old kid who looks up to Rockson as a hero.

Now Syvertsen has developed this plot, and despite the juvenile nature there’s heaps of opportunity: I mean a space station filled with Neo-Nazis, and Rockson about to board a starfighter and head out there to face them. The reader, especially one who is a veteran of pulp paperbacks, expects a juicy tale of Rockson encountering a bevy of, say, uber-horny outer space Nazi She-Devils. Or even some depraved galactic Hitler or somesuch. But my friends, my friends…Syvertsen says “screw all that” and instead page-fills with abandon, spending the majority of the tale in arbitrary bullshit: an avalanche, a bunch of vampire women who run a diner, and finally – and most annoyingly – a bunch of crap about “space Frenchies” (aka “space bums”), themselves descendants of astronauts, who eke out their existence above the Earth and eat metal. As impossible as it is to believe, Syvertsen spends just a handful of pages in the neo-Nazi space station – Killov himself only appears once or twice in the narrative itself – and does absolutely zero to exploit his own outrageous plot.

The usual template is catered to: Rockson and team (composed of all the usual save for Scheransky, who is “working on a secret project with Schecter” that’s never revealed) encounter all the usual dangers on the journey, both flora and fauna. Syvertsen then reveals that he’s not even paying attention to his own series, or at least hoping no one else is: the Rock Team comes across an actual diner, the U-EAT-HERE, with flashing neon sign and hot waitresses and everything, and Rockson can’t believe such a thing exists. And yet, Rockson already encountered a similar diner back in the fifth volume. Not that he remembers this. Instead he and his team are thunderstruck that a diner exists, and saunter inside and gape at all the food and the scantily-clad waitresses, and Rockson suppresses the constant “danger signs” that flash in his mind.

Syvertsen will spend way too much of the narrative here. Of course the women turn out to be evil and the diner’s a trap; within seconds of eating their food Rockson and team pass out, the food drugged. They wake up in tough spider webs and Rockson realizes that the waitresses are actually vampires – mutant vampires at that. Only Chen’s ninja skills allow them to gradually get free of the bonds, but not before a few of Rock’s team have been killed and, most disgustingly of all, some slug sort of things have been implanted in McGlaughlin’s big gut. Rockson rallies his troops and they finally massacre the vampire women, but McGlaughlin’s in a coma (the slug-things extracted by a medic – and yes Rockson’s finally learned to bring along a medic on these missions) and way too many pages have been wasted on this bullshit.

Even more unbelievably, he squanders more potential: we’re told early on that the Dynosoar is in Wyoming, in an area of land controlled by a barbarian ruler named Garr. Well Syvertsen brushes through this as well; given that he wasted so much time with the vampire women, he has Rockson and team show up in Wyoming, scout out the area – and within a few pages Rockson’s made his way to the massive starfighter, which is stored underground, and gotten the rest of the team on it! I mean there’s no confrontation with Garr, nothing. That being said, we do get one of the most random Beatles references ever: Rockson sees some dude shitting in the street and thinks to himself, “Why don’t we do it in the road?” Rajat and Connors take over and push a few buttons and the ship rolls along the underground passageway – apparently no issue due to the thing having sat there for over a century – and within a page or two they’re blasting off into outer space!

Now all this would be fine if it led directly to the Nazi space station and those cosmic Nazi She-Devils. But unfortunately they’ll just have to exist in our imagination, because instead Rockson starts target-shooting with the laser beam, and almost blasts apart a strange-looking ball of junk…only to realize there’s a person in a spacesuit hovering beside it! The guy waves for entry into the Dynosoar, and he turns out to be the descendant of French astronauts – his ancestors were stuck on a space station when the nuclear war happened – and now he and his people make their living up here, scavenging space refuse. Absolutely no attempt is made at explaining any of this. We’re told there were “hundreds of oxygen tanks” left behind up here, apparently a century’s worth – but there are tons of these people, living in total outer space squalor, even getting their food from space junk by melting metal into a “paste” which they use to make food. And they’re super-advanced, too, even able to heal McGlaughlin and bring him out of his coma.

At this point the reader has to make a choice: chalk the whole thing off as the dumbest shit ever and chuck the book, or just keep reading. But you can’t do the former, because honestly the entire series is goofy, so at this point, fourteen volumes in, what’s the point? It’s just that this particular volume takes it so far into the realm of the ridiculous that there’s almost no coming back. And as mentioned the worst part is that Syvertsen can’t even reap his own material: we don’t see a single space Nazi, and the too-few parts with Killov have him bickering with a scientist type and the Fuhrer, who is old and moronic and just sits there. Killov as expected takes control, fueled as ever by drugs. 

Rockson and team unite with the space bums and launch an attack on the space station, with lasers blasting and men in astronaut suits flying around with guns blazing. Rajat and Connors do all the heavy lifting; of course they are wizards with the Dynosoar, despite only having studied the thing on ancient floppy discs. Oh and I forgot to mention, there’s a friggin “Space Eiffel Tower” up here, which is what the ancestors of the Space Frenchies were up here for a hundred years ago: to build a replica of the Eiffel Tower in space. In one of the novel’s few memorable moments, this thing is used to pierce the heart of the Nazi space station. As ever Rock’s team suffers a few losses, but none of the regulars of course – though one of the new characters buys it. This is rendered humorous though because, SPOILER WARNING, it turns out to be Rajat who dies – floating off into space in a seeming tribute to the finale of Dark Star, and a crying Rockson says to himself, “Thank you, Rajiv.” Italics mine, because racist Rockson couldn’t even get the poor kid’s name right!!

The finale is also memorable, but sadly predicts that the series will get even more juvenile: Killov again manages to evade death, using a pair of “atmospheric chutes” to glide all the way down to Earth, able to even get through the stratosphere without burning to a crisp. And, Syvertsen at this point figuring “who cares,” Killov lands on the Great Pyramid of Cheops – just as a high priest is worshiping Amun Ra. And sure enough the dumb priest thinks this skeletal figure that just dropped from the sky is the god himself, and is prepared to worship him. And to bring him lots of drugs, which is what Killov immediately begins to scream for.

And with that American Death Orbit mercifully comes to a close; at nearly 250 pages of super-big print it does manage to move at a fast clip, but it’s so sophomoric that the reader has a helluva time even enjoying it. I mean Syvertsen’s gone way out before, but this time he goes way, way out, and I can’t say it’s for the best. There are only a few volumes left, so here’s hoping the series gets back to the vibe of the earliest volumes.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Songbird


Songbird, by Ralph Benner
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

This obscure rock novel is courtesy the guy who started TigerBeat, something I wasn’t aware of until after I’d read the novel. Throughout Songbird I kept wondering why the focus was on teenybopper performers and teenybopper fans, with a naiive teenaged protagonist acting as our guide. When I learned the TigerBeat connection it all made sense – not that Macfadden provides any sort of context or bio for our author. Presumably in 1970 more people were aware of who Jack Benner was.

Sadly, Songbird is more Patridge Family than Beatles, even though there’s a clear Beatles analogue in the book. Benner is also another of those “rock authors” who is either unwilling or incabable of actually describing rock music, usually just dropping the names of various groups and informing us of how our teen protagonist gets off on their “driving beat.” It’s more of a “the rock business is depraved and full of jaded freaks” type of novel, and one with a strange, unwieldy vibe, at that; Benner employs the tone of juvenile fiction with his innocent, doe-eyed protagonist, but will often sleaze things up with wild sex or raunchy material. Not that the novel’s very explicit or graphic, though; most of the sleaze occurs off-page.

Anyway the titular character is Linda May Loomis, sixteen years old and living with a single mother in a podunk town in Georgia when we meet her. Actually she’s 19 when we meet her, but Benner clumisly employs a flashback sequence that he never returns to. Linda has had a gift for singing since she was born, and thus acquired the nickname “Songbird.” Benner mostly refers to her as “Bird” throughout the book (luckily it’s written in third-person, as I prefer my trash fiction to be, but unfortunately Benner is a bad POV-hopper, jarringly jumping perspectives between characters with little warning). We’re only told Bird’s voice is deep and husky, and Benner at no point even attempts to describe her singing voice to us.

But then, he’s too busy telling us how ugly and flat-chested she is; the book begins with some of the most humorous character assassination I’ve ever encountered for a main protagonist. “She wasn’t pretty by anyone’s standards,” with “colorless hair,” and taller than most girls but with a spindly nature and not much in the way of breasts. In fact Benner goes to such lengths to fuglify Bird (I just coined the word “fuglify,” btw) that the reader is hard-pressed to understand why all the male rock stars want to bone her – and indeed, treat her with greater respect than their actual, you know, pretty female fans. Apparently Bird has some special quality about her – at one point it’s intimated that her husky voice does her a lot of favors – but again Benner fails to really explain it.

As I say, Benner also employs an unwieldy tone; the book establishes Bird as a rail-thin, sort of fugly sixteen year-old loser, living in a ramshackle house with a deadbeat mom, and she’s doe-eyed obsessive over the teen groups of the day. She’s incredibly naiive and innocent…yet we learn off-handedly that she’s been screwing some local boy for the heck of it. I mean I’m not judging, it’s just so unexpected given the preceding pages of character assasination we’ve witnessed, so you’re surpsised to learn she’s even managed to get lucky. Anyway Bird is particularly obsessed with British group The Red Coats, “the most popular singing group in the world,” aka the Beatles. Only there’s five of them instead of four, and Bird is especially hot for the sensitive drummer, Claude(!). The novel opens with Bird desperate to find a way to Atlanta, where the Redcoats are about to give a concert.

Bird hitches a ride with a good friend, but ends up becoming pals with Eleanor, a sort of reporter-slash-groupie who lives in Atlanta. Here we get our first understanding that Songbird isn’t a “rock novel” per se, as we’re only told of the screaming throngs of teen girls, and how the Redcoats can barely be heard over the din. It’s all more along the lines of the Beatles at Shea Stadium than, say, The Rolling Stones at Altamont – which by the way occurred a year before this novel was published, despite which Songbird exists in a more innocent rock world. I mean the Plaster Casters are presented as the most shocking thing Bird encounters, and in the entirety of the book she takes just a single LSD trip…unwillingly at that.

Eleanor has local connections so gets Bird in line to see the Red Coats as they’re leaving the stadium, and Eric Linden, their hunky young PR guy, starts handing out invitations to all the hot girls for an after party at the hotel. He sees Bird – who we’ll remember has been described as ugly, lanky, and just all-around unappealing from page one – and gives her an invitation. But it turns out Linden wants her for himself; he takes her to his room on the floor below the Red Coats, and tells her quite casually that he enjoys handing out invitations to girls he knows the Red Coats won’t be attracted to! Bird is quite world-wise for all her innocence and realizes she’ll have to screw Eric to get up to the party in the Red Coats’s suite; this she gamely does, Benner as ever not getting too explicit.

However, Bird will find herself developing feelings for Eric; she gets up to the party and finally sees her idols in the flesh, but stunningly Benner doesn’t do much to bring any of them to life, other than Claude – and he even has Bird sort of tuning out while Claude talks to her! I mean what the hell? Here also Claude expresses interest in Bird’s voice, asking if she sings. But the party comes to a quick end, and more time is spent with Eleanor, who turns out to be married, with a two-year old kid to boot. Eleanor is not in danger of winning any mother of the year awards; there are some cringe-worthy moments where she shows total disregard for her son, Jason. Like, “locking him in a car and leaving him there for a few hours” sort of cringe-worthy.

Now that Bird’s gotten her taste of the rock world, she wants more. After her mom catches her screwing herself with the water that pours from the bathtub faucet (really!), Bird decides she’s had it with this place and steals some of her mom’s secret money to get back to Atlanta. She hooks up with Eleanor again, and the pseudo-reporter takes her to a local TV show where a Troggs-esque rock group is giving a show. Again, not much detail on this, and the group is presented as a mangy, disreputable, almost proto-punk lot. They also mock Eleanor, and here Bird sees how pathetic the young girl is…she clearly wants to be a part of the rock world, but is “saddled” with a family she doesn’t really want. Luckily Eleanor soon disappears from the text; she talks Bird into immediately driving to New York to catch the upcoming Red Coats concert, and last we see of Eleanor – until the end of the novel, where we find out she’s left her kid and husband and become a full-time hippie – she’s hanging out in Greenwich Village.

Bird as I say is an unusual character; she sneaks into the hotel the Red Coats are staying in and reluctantly lets the kitchen boy screw her in a closet in exchange for a waitress uniform. This she wears as she takes a tray of tea up to the Red Coats suite. But Bird is quickly outed, however Eric Linden is happy to see her. More importantly we have a Bob Dylan riff here, with a “dwarfish” folk singer with a big mouth who holds court with the Red Coats, mocking them for their pretentions – literary Noel (aka John Lennon) in particular. Benner seems to be heading into a cliched rock orgy party sequence…then has Bird wake up in Eric’s bed next day, not remembering anything! 

Ridiculously, so much plot stuff has happened off-page; Bird, we learn, was dosed with some LSD by Noel, and she ended up acting nuts in the hotel room – and, more importantly, singing. So once again Bird’s displayed her singing talents and our author has denied us from actually witnessing it. However, she’s so impressed Eric that he wants to take Bird back to London with him and manage her…and also keep her on the side as his extramarital nookie. Bird’s even called her mom, again off-page, to tell her she’s leaving the country. And we won’t even see the mom again; throughout the novel Benner sets up all these plot points that demand resolution, but he never returns to any of them. Bird’s relationship with her mother is one of the biggest; it won’t be for a hundred or so pages that we even learn that Bird occasionally writes her mother letters.

Unfortunately Benner squanders even more promise: he picks up a month later and Bird’s basically become a secretary for Red Coats boss Bryce, with no followup on her potential singing career…nor any further information on her association with the Red Coats. The group she idolizes, has managed to meet, and has even followed to London to work for them, and they totally drop from the narrative. Save for Claude, who turns out to be gay…and there’s a goofy bit where a totally-serious Bird innocently asks Claude how gay men have sex(!). This leads to a bonkers bit where Bird goes down on Claude, the event proceeding to full-blown sex…with Claude putting his member in the part of Bird’s anatomy that he’s most familiar with! Bird appears to like it, though…leading to a secret romance between the two that eventually blows up when Claude tells Bryce (who turns out to be his lover) he’s been screwing Bird, and Bryce fires Eric Linden…and Bird’s now without a job.

Soon it becomes clear that Songbird is mostly a picaresque. Rather than a plot that develops and builds – Eric, Claude, and the rest of the Red Coats disappear from the novel at this point, and they don’t return – it’s instead composed of Bird going from one unusual character and situation to the next. So after the Red Coats she ends up with famous black American soul singer Chic Hale; she met him at a concert Eric took her to, but while Chicliked Bird, Bird didn’t like Chic – because he’s black, and she’s from Georgia, and she still has certain sentiments. But now out on the street in a foreign city with no home or paycheck, a girl has to put her discriminations in check, so she heads on over to Chic’s place…and ends up having the best sex of her young life. And by the way, Bird’s still sixteen years old throughout all this.

The stuff with Chic doesn’t last very long; soon enough Bird’s back in America, now hanging out in San Francisco with a Joni Mitchell-esque folk singer named Char Rain, whom she just met in London. This part is incredibly random, and throughout Benner fails to exploit the fact that Bird has become best buds with the rock world glitterati. Seriously, the book implies that all you need to do is sneak into a hotel room to meet your rock idols, and next thing you know you’ll be flying around the world with them. Here, instead of anything having to do with the music biz, Bird instead gets in conversations with Char’s Abbie Hoffman-esque boyfriend, who wants Char to use her “power” to fight war and such, and meanwhile distrusts Bird as an interloper. After the two try to engage Bird in a three-way, our heroine takes off for Los Angeles.

This part has nothing whatsoever to do with anything; Bird hooks up with an old lech named Papa Burl – Chic Hale randomly gave her his name back in London as a guy to look up if she was ever in LA – and rooms with one of his “girls.” This old freak is a former Hollywood photographer or somesuch, and he has a retinue of young girls who flock around him. He throws a party where a fifteen year old girl gives her virginity to some local “stud,” an event which Papa Burl throws whenever he finds willing young virgins. All very unseemly, strange, and most unforgivably arbitrary. What’s worse is that in this part we have an actual rock-type dude: Fuzzy Remo, fantastically-named singer of a local group (I imagined them having a garage punk sound, like The Seeds or something). But he’s only in the book for a couple pages – long enough to take Bird back to his place, drop some acid, and treat her like shit. Bird shows him who’s boss by biting his dick and then taking off.

The final quarter sees Bird finally achieving her dream: becoming a rock figure in her own right. But even here it’s not enough and she’s still unhappy and uncertain about everything. She meets Davey Brillini, a pudgy singer-songwriter in Los Angeles who has been on the cusp of fame for years, but who hasn’t broken through. Bird gets a shot at singing backup for him at a recording, and Davey is so impressed that he rearranges the track and brings Bird in as his co-lead. They cut a few records together, and soon enough they’ve got a pair of greasy managers who go on to position the couple as a sort of hipper, younger Sonny and Cher, with “mod” outfits and such. Inexplicably, all of this stuff is sort of rushed through, and rather than focus on the music and the experience, Benner dwells on how unhappy Bird is, how she finds this sudden fame so soul-crushing.

And what’s worse, rather than wrapping up any of the earlier stuff – like a now-famous Bird meeting Eric Linden or the Red Coats again, or maybe reuniting with her mom, who constantly told Bird she wouldn’t amount to anything – Benner instead introduces a lame eleventh hour subplot where a mainstream writer wants to do a piece on Bird and Davey, and Bird starts falling for the guy. He’s in his thirties, not part of the rock world, yadda yadda, but it’s all just so lame and dumb…I mean we finally got to a “rock novel” sort of plot, but Benner instead turns it into a soapy melodrama about Bird and Davey’s relationship fracturing and Bird looking to this new guy as her latest chance for happiness. Even lamer, it all quickly fizzles in the last few pages and Bird just decides to fake happiness with Davey if she can’t have the real thing. The end!

I went into the usual needless depth because Songbird appears to be pretty scarce. A few years later Manor reprinted the book, but this edition seems to be just as scarce. My advice is to save your money.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Able Team #5: Cairo Countdown


Able Team #5: Cairo Countdown, by Dick Stivers
April, 1983  Gold Eagle Books

Man, it’s been forever since I read a volume of Able Team. And I’m not even sure what the holdup’s been, as I have a bunch of them, mostly the ones that were written by early series mastermind GH Frost. But as any Gold Eagle veteran knows, if you read the copyright page you’ll see who the real author was, receiving a special acknowledgement in tiny print. While Cairo Countdown is clearly the work of G.H. Frost – same as the previous one was, even though it was credited to “C.J. Shiao” – the copyright page acknowledges Paul Hofrichter!

But folks there’s no way in hell this book was written by the guy who gave us Roadblaster. To make it all even more perplexing, back in 2011 G.H. Frost himself left a comment on my review of Army Of Devils (one of the best damn men’s adventure novels ever published – and then some!!), where he specifically mentioned this very novel:

In Cairo Countdown, I had written the closing scene as summary justice. The Muslim Brotherhood government infiltrator who had choregraphed the missile-assassinations of pilots, then the kidnapping and torture of an American serviceman, the Egyptian had kicked the American close to death -- so I had Lyons do a justice scene on him. 

When Lyons captured the Egyptian, he shot off his feet. “He'll never kick an American again.” 

More or less. I can't find my typescript of the novel. 

( Just now, I looked for my copy of the book. It's in a box somewhere. If I remember correctly, the published last page cuts off, as if the editor simply crossed out paragraphs. Look at the book, I think that's it. ) 

So the editor had decided to not renew my contract. At that time, there were many wars in the world. I wanted to go somewhere interesting, I wanted to finish my contract, take the payoff, and go – 

I wanted to finish the last books on the contract and take off for another country. So ... I hyped up with coffee, wrote hyped until I passed out, woke, wrote.

So I’d love to know how Hofrichter could’ve gotten the credit for Cairo Countdown. Either it was a publisher snafu or he did some “polishing” of Frost’s manuscript – but still, for the most part this book reads like Frost. I mean there’s a world of difference between the writing styles of GH Frost and Paul Hofrichter. Perhaps Frost’s mention of Gold Eagle wanting to fire him factors into this (even though he went on to write many more installments of the series), and Hofrichter was given credit for the book in some passive-aggressive scheme to keep Frost from getting any royalty payments – as I understand it, early in the Gold Eagle days the ghostwriters got a certain cut of this.

But as I say, this definitely is the work of Frost, or at the very least the majority of it is – there are even a few flashbacks to the previous volume, in an effort to develop some continuity. But this being Gold Eagle and all, “continuity” is mostly relegated to subplots concerning guns and stuff; last time Carl “Ironman” Lyons, the leader of Able Team, had a lot of trouble with his Beretta 93R when the 9mm bullets failed to take out his targets with the first shot. So now Stony Man – ie the government compound in which Mack BolanPhoenix Force, and Able Team operate out of – armorer Konzaki has developed a modified .45 that has a three-shot burst feature, same as the 93R did, but with the stopping power of a .45. Plus it’s also nearly silent. This is all shown, rather than told, in a fun scene where Lyons and Konzaki go out into the woods to test out a bunch of guns, sort of like the Gold Eagle version of a picnic.

From here though it’s straight into the action, and ultimately Cairo Countdown is an endless sequence of action scenes. Lyons’ pager goes off while he’s out testing his guns, and next we see him he’s arrived in Egypt with his Able Team comrades Gadgets Schwartz and Pol Balancales. And guys I still can’t figure it out, but Gadgets is the one with the moustache on the covers and Pol’s the one with the gray hair, right? We don’t get much description at all, nor any reminder of the series setup, but we do at least learn that Gadgets and Pol are Vietnam vets – first introduced way back in The Executioner #2 – and Lyons isn’t, thus there are a few parts where they appraise his performance in the field, saying he’s doing pretty good for a non-vet. (Lyons for his part also first appeared in the The Executioner #2, but he was a cop and had a wife and a kid at the time, and I’ve never seen them mentioned in this series, so that’s another mystery for me.)

There’s a Very Special Guest Star this time: Yakov Katzenlenbogen, leader of Phoenix Force, who acts as an intermediary between the CIA and Egyptian officials and Able Team out on the field. There’s not too much interraction between Katz and Able Team, and honestly the parts with him could be courtesy a different author, ie Paul Hofrichter, but they still read like the rest of the book for the most part. I was surprised though that not too much was really made of Katz’s presence, but seeing his name in print took me back to my childhood in the ‘80s when I was obsessed with Phoenix Force. For the most part though he just handles the dumb officials who try to prevent the guys in Able Team from getting too violent in their quest to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been blowing up US spy planes that run out of a secret base on Cairo’s airport.

But this ain’t no Robert Ludlum suspense yarn; within moments of arriving in Cairo our heroes are already on the move, getting in a protracted chase on the busy streets of the city, riding in separate taxis and following various terrorists. They’ve also got some local help, one of whom talks in outrageous slang and has more personality than the heroes themselves. Actually the Able Team guys are pretty cool – Frost capabably captures the easy-going banter the series would be known for – but they’re a bit lost amid the endless barrage of action. But it must be mentioned that the endless barrage of action isn’t nearly as ultra-gory as in the later Army Of Devils, even though Able Team again employs their Atchisson auto-shotguns; it’s just that more detail was made of the ensuing guts and gore in Army Of Devils.

Overall it’s kind of hard to review Cairo Countdown, because it’s just an endless action scene for the most part. Able Team hits various Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, running roughshod over Cairo within hours of their arrival. A fun part in the book occurs after one of these strikes; an exhausted Able Team enjoys a sort of catered lunch, with boxes of burgers, fries, and etc delivered to them on the street so they can grab a quick bite before kicking more terrorist ass! Late in the game a subplot develops that the terrorists have abducted a CIA operative, and the team is desperate to track him down and get him back before he can be tortured and killed. This entails at one point a nicely-done sequence where Able Team descends into the sewers beneath Cairo to assault an underground stronghold. But the agent is moved out of Cairo, to the remote village of El-Minya, where he’s held hostage within a heavily-fortified compound.

The novel climaxes with a big action scene, as Able Team manages to infiltrate the compound by cunning and by craft. The bit Frost mentioned in his comment occurs here; the main terrorist leader in this compound is blown up, and Lyons ties a tourniquet on the stumps of his legs to keep him from bleeding out. There’s no “He’ll never kick another American” line, and overall the vibe is more that the Team is happy the dude’s still alive so he can give them the needed info. This could be indication that someone did indeed edit Frost’s original manuscript, that person being Paul Hofrichter. But as I say, the majority of the book just reads more like Frost, so I guess it will have to remain a mystery. 

Overall though there was a bit of a bland feeling to Cairo Countdown, too much of it in the generic “terrorist of the week” vibe of many of these Gold Eagle publications. But then given that this one was published in 1983, perhaps it seemed more so “new” than generic at the time. It’s no Army Of Devils, though, which only indicates that Frost would get better and better. It’s certainly well-written, with a nice focus on the personalities of the main characters – Gadgets and Pol have a realistic banter that clearly identifies them as vets – but it’s just not as over the top as I prefer my men’s adventure to be. But then that could be because Frost’s manuscript was tinkered with, who knows.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Plastic Man


The Pastic Man, by David J. Gerrity
April, 1976  Signet Books

Well it took me seven years, but I’m finally getting back to the Cordolini trilogy David Gerrity began with The Never Contract. Once again sporting a generic photo cover and running to just a little over 180 pages, The Plastic Man follows its predecessor in that series protagonist Frank “The Wolf” Cordolini is sort of a guest star in his own book. Such a guest star that the dude’s family is killed off before the book begins, thus we don’t even get to see Cordolini’s reaction – mostly because he doesn’t stick around long enough in the narrative to make an impression on us.

But then, Cordolini is a legendary, almost mythic figure in the Mafia, so clearly Gerrity tries to recreate the experience for the reader. But it really ruins any good potential for reader empathy and all that jazz. At any rate the book opens with a pair of Mafia hoods staking out a funeral in the hopes of ambushing Cordolini. We only learn through vague dialog that the people being buried are Cordolini’s wife and young son, and these guys are here at the behest of their godfather, Don Genarro, “The Fat Man.” Long story short, and again something we only gradually learn: Genarro received a picture of the Virgin Mary shortly after the wife and kid were murdered, and the picture is Cordolini’s calling card – per the Mafia legend, if you receive such a picture it means the Wolf is coming for you. Cordolini clearly believes that Genarro was behind the hit on his family, but we readers will learn that Genarro was framed.

Thus these guys are here at the funeral in the hopes of nailing Cordolini before he can nail their capo. But they don’t see him and leave – and of course get blown away when they least expect it. This opening sequence gives us a taste of the novel to follow: it’s mostly comrpised of various Mafia types talking and plotting, the subject of their dialog mainly Cordolini…and Cordolini himself only briefly appears. This is also evident in the titular “Pastic Man,” a plastic explosives specialist named Jerry Doyle who hires out his skills for top-dollar assassination work. We meet him as he’s been flown in from Boston by Genarro, the Godfather putting up with the guy’s constant insults due to his underworld rep for always getting his target – even if it means blowing up the target’s entire family. 

Gerrity’s narrative style is completely different than his earlier, Spillane-influenced work, a la Dragon Hunt and The Hot Mods. Gone are the hardboiled-isms, replaced with your typical mid-‘70s Mafia crime thriller vibe: the word “fuck” appears about twice a page as various goombahs sit around and shoot the shit. The random sadism and sleaze of The Never Contract are gone, though, as is the Manson-esque hippie element. In fact, The Plastic Man is pretty static and, well, boring, save for the (too few) scenes with Cordolini and the colorful scenes with Jerry Doyle. Not to mention the completely unexpected eleventh hour twist, which adds an entirely different dimension to the novel, Gerrity pulling a narrative trick that is both outrageous and ridiculous.

A lot of the narrative is comprised of picking up the pieces from the fallout of the previous book, where Cordolini wiped out the forces of Don Vicari. Various Mafioso have moved in on his old territory, led by “The Old Man” as the main godfather, and Genarro handling New York. But while the novel opens with Genarro seeming like a worthy villain, as the narrative develops he’s revealed to be a screw-up, looked down on by his underlings and constantly disrespected by the Old Man. Even his consiglieri, Gino Friedman, plots behind his back, so we’re missing the loathsome villain we had last novel, where we spent the entire time just waiting to see the bastard get his comeuppance – and as mentioned in my review, a comeuppance Gerrity inexplicably sped through.

One person who really rakes Genarro over the coals is Jerry Doyle, who ridicules the Fat Man and his various goombahs from the moment he gets off the plane. Gerrity throws a curveball with an actual romantic subplot for this hired assassin: Genarro sets Doyle up with a live-in hooker named Brendine, and while Doyle initially rejects her he relents when the girl pleads that the Fat Man will kill her if she’s sent back to him. So Doyle, wondering why he’s going to the trouble, brings Brendine into his confidence, the author skillfully developing a romantic bond between the two – however the tomfoolery occurs entirely off-page. Sleaze is nonexistent in this one. Brendine it develops has been sent here to spy by Gino Friedman, who plots to wrest control from Don Genarro, but Doyle manages to talk Brendine into going back home in the country and getting away from all these mob killers – which has dire consequences for various characters.

But where is Cordolini, you may ask? If he’s not striking from the shadows, he’s talking with old Pasqual Scalise, a former Mafia buddy; this is the first the two have seen each other in a decade, and Pasqual can’t get over Cordolini’s new face, courtesy some plastic surgery (I can’t remember if this was established in the previous book or if it’s something that happened prior to this one). Pasqual shoots the breeze with Cordolini, but we readers soon learn that he has his own part in the plot, as he simmers that Don Genarro was given Vicari’s domain; he believes it rightfully should be his, and will go about various brutal actions to achieve his goal.

Spoiler warning: Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. But anyway as mentioned Gerrity pulls a narrative trick that foreshadows Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club by a couple decades. We have motormouthed Jerry Doyle hired to kill Cordolini, but for the most part he just takes care of Brendine and mocks various mobsters…I mean we never see him actually planning anything. And we have Cordolini striking from the shadows as he wipes out various torpedos or intercepts a shipment of heroin Don Genarro is expecting. Well friends prepare yourself for this one – the novel ends with Genarro, The Old Man, and other high-level mobsters sequestered on a ship to discuss what to do, given current events. Then Doyle calls Genarro on the phone…and Genarro realizes that Doyle is really Cordolini! That’s right – Cordolini reveals that the real Jerry Doyle is “dead and buried” and he, Cordolini, has been posing as Doyle since his arrival in New York! Hence Cordolini really has been center stage throughout most of the novel, but no one – not even the reader – has been aware of it.

The Plastic Man ends with Genarro’s rule come to as decisive an end as Vicari’s did, but this time Cordolini also manages to take out the Old Man. Then there’s a final reckoning with the person who ordered the murder of Cordolini’s family – but Gerrity again squanders any potential for blood-soaked vengeance by casually informing us that the actual perpetrators of the murder were no doubt killed themselves, their bodies dumped somewhere. So then the reader must be content as Cordolini strangles the man who ordered the hit, his gray eyes “terrible to see” as he gets his revenge. This is where we leave Cordolini, and hopefully I’ll get to the concluding novel, The Numbers Man, a lot sooner than I did this one.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Stryker #3: Drug Run


Stryker #3: Drug Run, by William Crawford
October, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Now this is more like it – with the third volume of StrykerWilliam Crawford finally figures out how to write a fast-paced, violent ‘70s crime paperback; reduced – but not gone – are the random asides, arbitrary digressions, and incessant POV-hopping that mired his previous books. Same goes for the overwriting; Drug Run is a mere 146 pages, of pretty big print.

But the good stuff Crawford’s always done is here, and thus undimmed by the usual excess baggage: a hard-bitten bastard of a hero, moments of gory (but realistic) violence, and of course, characters puking and shitting themselves (a Crawford staple if there ever was one). Oh and lots of “flying fiction,” another Crawford staple, but not as pages-consuming as say The Assassin.

It’s some unstated time after the second volume; long enough for Stryker to go into “temporary retirement,” living on the family ranch with his mother. But Colin Stryker’s no ranch-hand mama’s boy like Dakota; within the first page he’s decided to go back out into the world and kick some ass. (Oh and it’s revealed this time that his mother’s sort of a witch…and that Stryker inherited a bit of a sixth sense from her!) The memory of Kitty Tiel, the pretty young blonde who overdosed in the previous book, enslaved into drugs and whoredom and whatnot by unscrupulous drug-runners, is what pulls Stryker back into his newfound role of vengeance-dispensing.

Stryker hops on his Cessna and heads on over to the little town in New Mexico where Kitty’s mom and dad live – only to find the dad dead via shotgun suicide and the mom about to OD on drugs. The same bastards have gotten hold of the parents; Kitty was forced to pose for “pornographic photos,” and these were sent to mom and pop, provoking the latter into suicide and the former into the squalor of drugs…which were provided to her by the very same sadists who got Kitty hooked. And, just as with Kitty, they’ve got mom turning tricks – in her own home! Stryker quickly displays that he’s not your average good samaritan action hero; he slaps Mrs. Tiel around, forces a water spicket down her throat, then stands by as she pukes several times – Crawford quickly developing his “someone will puke” theme.

Stryker also soon displays his bad-assery when it comes to his opponents; when two thugs come by Mrs. Riel’s place to ensure she’s dead from an OD, Stryker so savagely hits one of them that his jaw is broken in three places, and later guts him with an icepick. The surviving thug gets a molar ripped out and his face bashed to pieces, but Stryker’s true to his word and lets him live in exchange for info. Kitty, a promising actress, was ensnared by Hollywood players who were in reality drug runners; they hooked her on heroin and had her in porn flicks and turning tricks. So Stryker decides to just smash the heroin pipeline itself.

This entails that other Crawford staple – a long sequence set in Mexico. In fact, practically the entirety of Drug Run occurs in Mexico. Stryker learns of a major kingpin in the siera mountains, and looks to an old colleague named Flok – a former Mexican cop – for info. Stryker discovers the kingpin is named Villa, and heads into the mountains to snuff him out. He’s promptly captured, another mainstay of Crawford’s fiction; stripped naked and held in a pitch-black cave, his only cellmate a screeching bat. This is definitely a hackle-raising sequence, and Crawford skillfully plays out the tension and creepiness.

Stryker’s interrogated by two of Villa’s men, one a big brute and the other a cane-wielding sadist. This sequence plays out unexpectedly, thanks to the presence of the elderly female cook employed by Villa; Stryker gets one look at her and realizes she is a witch on the level of his mother. There’s a strange supernatural element here with Stryker getting a quick whiff of some unholy stench (which of course causes him to barf), and later it’s intimated that this was the ghostly stink of the woman’s long-dead husband and son, both of whom were apparently killed by the brutish thug. It’s not explained, left as a mystery, but it all works in Stryker’s favor – a bit unsatisfying so far as the genre goes (an action-series protagonist should never get out of a jam thanks to supernatural mumbo-jumbo), but it’s at least played mostly on the level.

Stryker gets himself an M-1 carbine and a couple horses and heads out of the mountains before Villa and his men can return. This leads to another nice action scene, where Stryker walks into an ambush but again turns the tables. Crawford’s action scenes never have the bigscale vibe of other men’s adventure novels of the era, operating more on a personal, as I say realistic, level, but when they hit they hit pretty hard. So here we have heads blown into gory mush and a dude soiling his britches when Stryker gets his grips on him. This leads to another good bit, where Stryker stages a raid on Villa’s place, gets the man himself, and tosses him out of his Cessna – a sequence only ruined by unnecessarily-technical flying description.

Curiously the book seems to end here, but limps on for an unspectacular final quarter as Stryker heads to LA, looking to take out at least one of the runners who got their heroin from Villa’s pipeline…heroin they’d use to prey on na├»ve starlets and hook them into whoredom. The book is on the same level of drug-paranoia as Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve; Stryker (and Crawford) isn’t just against heroin – he thinks marijuana is a tool of the devil, as well. But then as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot of similarity between the writing styles of Crawford and Martin Caidin; both have incredibly reactionary tones along with interminable “flying” sequences.

Unfortunately all this comes off like anticlimax after the material with Villa. Stryker sets his sights on a former actor turned drug runner; he might not be the guy who got Kitty, but he’ll just represent the whole damned group and suffer for it regardless. But instead of gun-blazing action, Stryker goes about an elaborate sting operation where he poses as the “new Villa” and tries to get this guy to go in with him, intending to set him up and burn him. Unfortunately the guy’s guard is a heroin junkie himself and decides to take matters into his own hands – a tense scene which has the ludicrous climax of Stryker bad-mouthing the guy until he puts down his gun!

Crawford here develops a subplot that a lawyer wants to help Stryker get all the charges from the first volume dropped, so Stryker can “go home,” ie be a cop again. The novel ends with Stryker back on the ranch with his mom and blinded daughter (who humorously has yet to get a single line of dialog in the series), planning to give the lawyer a call. There was only one more volume, so perhaps it will serve as an actual resolution to the series. Crawford was poised to be Pinnacle’s “house” writer – as William W. Johnstone later was – but it seems that his involvement with the publisher came to a sudden end in 1974. His last publications were pseudonymous novels for book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel. I’d still like to know more about the guy, but my assumption is he passed away sometime in the late ‘70s.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Kingpin


Kingpin, by Hugh Miller
October, 1975  New English Library

Sporting one of the greatest covers in the history of mankind, Kingpin was first published in hardcover by NEL in 1974 (with an altogether lame cover, below). It’s a sequel to Miller’s novel The Open City, published by NEL in hardcover in ’73 and paperback in ’74. I picked up the paperback editions of each book several years ago, right around when I started the blog. I intended to read The Open City first, but it appears to be a crime thriller set in Glasgow, and I just can’t seem to drum up the enthusiasm to read it.

Because it truly would be an undertaking – both it and Kingpin are quite long, the latter coming in at 236 pages of small, dense print. Interestingly, we get double quotation marks for the dialog instead of the standard single quotation marks used in England, but otherwise Miller’s prose is very English at times, more focused on probing the psyches of his characters than delivering the unbridled sleaze of an American trash fiction writer. That’s not to say Kingpin isn’t sleazy at times – it’s pretty explicit for a British novel – but it is pretty slow-going and tells a lot more than it shows. But it does occasionally get down and dirty, most often when relating the frequent sexual experiences of the titular “kingpin,” a right bastard of a DJ named Dave Cole.

While Kingpin is ostensibly a sequel to The Open City, returning protagonist Michael McBain is at most a supporting character. The first quarter of the novel wraps up unfinished business from the previous book; Michael runs a sort of Playboy Magazine publishing empire in Glasgow, and it’s over a year after he exacted his revenge on some underworld boss who had Michael’s brother killed. But in the exacting of that vengeange Michael’s beautiful sister, Jean, was paralyzed, her spine or something sliced up by a straight razor – the same razor Michael then used to slash up the underworld boss, who is now a “raving madman” in some asylum.

Then Michael gets a call from an acquaintance in London, and ventures over to hear about this new project a consortium of entreprenneurs would like Michael to consider: they’re heading up a million-pound discotheque in the West End, and want Michael to handle the publicity, as well as the hiring of DJs and female staff. I had a tough time figuring out if the disco meant “disco” in the current accepted meaning of the term, ie the Saturday Night Fever-esque coke-fueled disco sleaze of the late ‘70s. However, the book was published in ’74, meaning it was presumably written in ’73 or so, and of course in that period a “disco” was something else – the term I believe wasn’t even used for clubs here in the US at the time – so we mostly have mentions of “pop” songs, rather than dance songs.

Not that any of this matters much, but personally I demand exactness when it comes to music in fiction – I want to know the names of the bands, the sound of their music. Unfortunately Miller can’t be bothered with these details. We learn that 25 year-old Dave Cole is mega-successful in the pop world; he’s a DJ (ie a performing DJ, not a radio DJ), but he’s so powerful he can make or break groups, and he’s done production work as well. We get to see him in action a few times, DJing a few gigs, and we’re often told the names and songs of the groups (all of them fictional), but not much else, other than Cole’s hyperbolic DJ chatter; ie, “Here’s a gut-groover from Mudflap,” and the like. Miller does come up with some colorful names; in the book we also get Drophead Daisy, Black Pigeon (with “Sad Soul Sister”), and Big Billy (an “underground progressive rock” group, with the track “Rubber Gloves”). Too bad this is all we get to know about any of them.

There’s a lot of plotting and counterplotting; Jean, Michael’s wheelchair-bound sister, is a bit of a bitch, and has refashioned herself Nietszche-like after what she went through in the previous book. She’s now determined to do anything possible to get her way; for example when she learns that her young live-in nurse/best friend Charlotte plans to get married and leave her, Jean pretends to nearly drown in the bathtub, leaving Jean so guilt-ridden that she calls off her plans and insists on staying with Jean. But Jean saves her most elaborate plotting for Michael, whom she blames for her current crippled condition; if he hadn’t ruffled some underworld feathers, she would still be able to walk. 

But Michael is oblivious to this, thus offers Jean the opportunity to head up the promotions for the new disco, which will be named Source Sounds. He feels that getting her out of Glasgow and into London will be good for her, not knowing that Jean relishes the idea of using the new business venture to wreck Michael’s life. Let me give you a bummer of a spoiler right now – we get intermittent details on what the disco will look like, how ultra-modern and ultra-fab it will be, but my friends believe it or not, the book ends before the disco even opens! So we must be content with this verbalized description, courtesy one of the backers when selling the idea to Michael: 


The book really picks up when Dave Cole enters the narrative. We meet him as he is DJing an event, being scoped out by a pretty young brunette with a “pseudo-Afro;” Cole for his part has long blonde hair that runs past his shoulders and is given to wearing outrageous “pop” fashions, like denim suits and such. Here we get a taste of Cole’s nut-jobbery; he considers taking the brunette home, but first she must be put in her place, with Cole letting her know without shadow of a doubt that he’s a god and she’s a mere mortal – to this end he calls her out to the assembled throngs, encouraging the men to ambush her and force her to join the dancing masses. Then during a set break he goes to a bar around the corner and takes umbrage when the bartender tells him to scram, because guys with long hair aren’t welcome. Instead of leaving Cole beats the shit out of the guy with his judo moves…and a few sentences after he’s delivered this savage beating, we’re told via the narrative that Cole is a “sensitive man!”

It’s all about control with Cole – and Miller does refer to him by his last name, whereas Michael McBain is “Michael.” This further lends the impression that Cole is more of an anti-hero, though really he comes off like an antogonist. He takes the brunette, Beverly, home, and proceeds to treat her like crap, but at least we get a glimpse of Cole’s ultra-modern pad. But he’s one of those “pop world figures” who claims not to like pop, and plays classical on his state-of-the-art stereo; Miller by the way doesn’t get as geeky as I’d like with the occasional hardware mentions. For example we’re told Cole runs two turntables when he DJs, and that Source Sounds will have top of the line gear, but it’s not enough to satisfy a vintage gearhead like myself.

Anyway this is what will be the first of a few somewhat-explicit sex scenes; Cole feels Beverly up and then insists she put on a corset. Then he flips her over, ties her up, and takes her from behind – all without any preamble or warning. “You’re a kinky bastard, aren’t you?” the girl asks…before casually revealing that she’s done this sort of thing before! Cole really is kinky…when he meets Jean McBain later he lusts over the idea of sex with a girl in a wheelchair, something he’s fantasized about – and something he achieves, scoring with Jean in equally-explicit fashion in the last quarter of the book.

Michael McBain might’ve been the main protagonist of the previous book (I assume), but as mentioned he’s reduced to supporting status this time; we learn he’s married, to a beautiful blonde actress named Phyllis Stanley, but the couple is separated. She too comes to London, following Michael, but soon becomes infatuated with Cole. At a party in which Source Sounds is announced, Michael sets Cole on Phyllis, hoping to keep her from causing a scene. Instead Cole takes her back to her place for some more rough sex (“I’m going to fuck your insides out,” he helpfully informs her), after which Phyllis develops what will become a sort of fatal attraction for Cole.

This is what takes up the brunt of the narrative, rather than the more-interesting stuff about Source Sounds. That, and Cole’s increasing psychosis. He gets in frequent fights, beating opponents to burger with little provocation. We also learn quite randomly that he’s into heroin – he claims early on that he has “a psychological addition to LSD,” but we never see him use it. Instead he bashes people up, in one instance maiming some victim for life, then goes home covered in blood and shoots up. Phyllis begins to suspect Cole is behind the savage beating she’s read about in the paper, and confronts Cole with it, but this subplot pans out with Phyllis herself overdosing on sleeping pills.

Unbelievably, Miller uses the “accidental overdose” gambit twice; the novel rushes to a climax with Jean’s revenge coming to fruition: she’s gotten Cole to fall in love with her and has convinced him to give up the DJ world and become a fulltime artist(!?), with her representing him. Thus Cole quits Source Sounds – this after he’s made life hell for Michael and the other financial backers, mostly at Jean’s urging – and Michael is made to look a fool in front of the board, and is asked to resign. Then Michael is contacted by the cops, as Phyllis left a note with her lawyer, one that was only to be opened if she died in mysterious circumstances. The note implicates Cole in the savage beating of that guy…and Michael heads over for a reckoning with the DJ (spoiler alert)…to find Cole dead of an accidental heroin overdose.

And with this Kingpin comes to a close; Jean has burned bridges with both Michael and Charlotte, assuming her plan of revenge was a success, but we learn in passing narrative that she’s returned to Glasgow in defeat. Charlotte heads off for Paris, where presumably she was headed before The Open City begain, and Michael…I don’t know, I guess plans to return to his “filthy magazine empire” in Glasgow. I’m not sure if Miller wrote any more novels about these characters, nor am I sure I’ll ever actually read The Open City.

Here's the lame cover for the original hardcover – about as half-assed a cover photo as I’ve ever seen: