Thursday, September 24, 2020

Mafia: Operation Hijack

Mafia: Operation Hijack, by Don Romano
August, 1974  Pyramid Books

“Attention Mafia hijackers: Richard Dawson has had enough of your shit!”*

The penultimate volume of Mafia: Operation is courtesy Paul Eiden, the first of two books he wrote for the series; he also wrote Operation Loan Shark, which happened to be the last volume of the series. But again as I’ve mentioned in every single review, Mafia: Operation isn’t really a series, per se, and instead is a set of unrelated, standalone novels focusing on the world of the mob. This time the plot is hijacking, obviously, and my only assumption is that Eiden, like most other ghostwriters for series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, was given the title and synopsis and told to cater a novel to it – only he had a helluva time figuring out how to write about hijacking trucks for 190 pages.

The end result is that there’s precious little hijacking in Operation Hijack, with the focus more on inter-family Mafia rivalries, a complex heist involving freight shipments from Europe, and finally the seduction-via-subjugation of a couple cold-fish beauties – an Eiden staple, and a clear indication that he was indeed the author who wrote another Engel production, Crooked Cop. There’s a subplot here that’s almost identical to the one in that earlier, superior novel, where the titular crooked cop went out of his way to subjugate a beautiful high-society whore…and she ended up falling in love with him. Eiden is in some ways in an even more macho, misogynist realm than Manning Lee Stokes: Operation Hijack states often that most women want to be treated like shit or generally abused, and it’s the surest way to get them to love you – and when they love you they’ll do anything for you. Actually there are “tips” throughout on how to get women in line and to do your bidding. (None of these tips seem to work on wives, btw; in fact, it turns out they have the complete opposite effect.)

Another hallmark of Eiden’s work is that his books are basically tragedies, featuring an arrogant alpha male protagonist who is clearly headed for misfortune – misfortune he could easily prevent if he was more aware of what was going on around him and not so much wrapped up in his own ego. There are a lot of similarities to Crooked Cop, so far as the protagonist goes: the “hero” of this one is Ralph Borden, aka Rafael Bardini, a muscular former boxer who still runs a couple miles a day and hits the weights first thing in the morning, working out in his penthouse apartment in Manhattan. He’s 29, sports a moustache, moves through women with ease, and runs the “hijacking scheme” for Don Carlo Renati. Ralph was plucked from the streets by Don Carlo, taken out of his successful Golden Gloves career and put on the fast-track to Mafia success. He was sent to college and put his business ideas to work in refashioning the mob, immediately making the family tons of money through various legal and illegal schemes.

The main plot actually has more to do with Ralph scheming to become the youngest Don in the Mafia. Don Carlo is in his 70s and frail and Ralph worries that he might be going senile. The other families are closing in on them, and Ralph’s afraid a mob war is brewing, and their little family will be wiped out – unless Don Carlo can “make” more soldiers (ie giving them kill contracts so they can become full-fledged Mafia members) and put himself together a proper army. So there’s a lot of plotting and scheming in this one, more of a “peek inside the Mafia world” than in Operation Loan Shark, so be prepared for a barrage of Italian names and histories on the various fictional families at play. I found it all a little boring, but at the very least it is a “Mafia novel,” more so than any others in the series, most of which focused on characters who orbited around the Mafia. Operation Hijack is different from the other four books in the “series” in that the protagonist is a full Mafia member, wholly part of the mob life.

The opening had me thinking we were going to get something similar to Operation Porno (the best volume of the series by far!), as we meet Ralph while he’s planning the financing of a “black action flick with white money behind it.” Eiden was certainly aware of the urban action movies of the day, with the characters specifically referencing Blaxploitation, and Ralph telling the young black director of the movie that he could be “the next Melvin van Peebles.” Or as one of the black characters says, “People who put down so-called blaxploitation films are mistaken.” Central to this group of filmmakers is a six-foot black beauty named Camille Caine, who is to star in the movie Ralph is financing: “Black Motor Cycle Girl.” The title sucks, but the plot sounds promising (what little we learn of it)…a biker/Blaxploitation hybrid. But sadly friends this will be all we hear about the movie!

Instead, the focus is on Ralph getting his “pound of flesh.” Haughty Ciarra, a model, is pissed that she’s getting such low pay, and Ralph goes out of his way to talk down to her, to make it clear she’s easily replaced – just total prig stuff, like referring only to “the girl” when speaking of the main actress, even though Ciarra’s sitting right there. This will just be our first glimpse of how Ralph must subjugate his female prey before he dominates them…and the more they dislike him, the more enjoyment he gets out of it. The guys leave, and Ralph makes it clear that Camille has “the classic decision” all aspiring actresses face: anonymity or the producer’s bed. Camille of course choses the latter, trying to get some digs in on Ralph for being a “wop.” He responds that “to be Italian is beautiful,” and further makes a compelling case that all black women secretly lust for a white lover! 

As with other Eiden novels I’ve read, Ralph’s poor treatment of the woman works to his advantage, with her soon pleading for sex in his swank penthouse. And promptly falling in love with him afterward! Indeed Ralph has to threaten to throw her out a few days later, as she refuses to leave him – and she needs to fly out to California to get started on the movie. In other words she’s willing to throw away her potential career for this guy she just met, this guy she hated at first sight. This sort of alpha male dominance is of course unacceptable in today’s entertainment, but as mentioned Eiden doles it out so casually that you almost forget Ralph’s supposed to be an anti-hero. He’ll go on to subjugate and dominate two more women in the novel, and unfortunately this is the last we see of Camille, or even hear about the movie.

The only hijacking stuff in the novel occurs early on. Ralph’s lieutenant, a former street soldier named Mickey, oversees a trucking hijacking scheme, where they rip off some poor trucker, stuff him in the trunk (eventually letting him go), and take the wares to a secret location to sell later. We see one of the hijacks go down, then learn later that the hijackers themselves were hijacked – some guys with shotguns and lead pipes ran the truck off the road and beat the drivers so unmerciful that one of them dies and the other loses an eye. Mickey is simmering for revenge, as is Ralph, but Don Carlo finds out from the Mafia commission that they’re to let it slide – longtime rivals the Palucci family were behind the counter-hijack, lying that they didn’t know Don Carlo’s men had already hijacked the truck. The Don sees something Ralph missed: there must be a traitor in their family who let the Paluccis know about the truck.

Ralph succeeds into talking the Don into vengeance, so an elaborate scheme is set up where they can foil the hijackers…and figure out who the mole is in their own organization. The cover painting comes into play here, with Ralph and Mickey waiting in a decoy truck with shotguns; when they’re hit by hijackers they come out blasting, wiping out would-be hijackers in gory splendor. This will be the only action scene in the novel. After which it’s more into the “Mafia drama suspense” mode, with a lot of stuff centered on the elaborate revenge on the capo who set them up in the first place…a revenge which has another of Ralph’s men, Joey, making his bones by carrying out the hit. Later the Paluccis will approach Ralph, basically offering him the role of a minor don if he himself will kill Don Carlo. Ralph will of course refuse the offer, which sets off the climactic events, but honestly the Mafia subplot also disappears for long stretches.

Instead, Eiden is more focused on Ralph’s breaking down the icy demeanor of a “full-breasted” Dutch beauty named Holly, who is such a cold fish she wonders if she’s a “Lez.” Actually she doesn’t even wonder; she reveals later she’s had sex with “many” women, in addition to men…it’s just that no one’s able to get her off. This is the subplot that is so reminiscent of Crooked Cop. Holly works for Dutch airline KLM, and Ralph’s had this complex heist scheme in mind for a long time…basically, from what little we learn of it, involving Holly using her contacts in the freight departments of various airlines in Europe to hijack shipments by changing the shipping addresses. But first he’ll need to seduce Holly, so we have a lot of stuff of him breaking down her icy reserve, despite her reservations and hesitations and constant reminders that nothing turns her on. Of course Ralph succeeds, quite easily it seems, by merely going down on her…after which he has her calling him “Lord Ralph” and literally begging for sex.

I should mention that despite all the focus on seduction and foreplay, there really isn’t much hardcore material in Operation Hijack, certainly not as much as there was in the first three volumes by Alan Nixon and Robert Turner. Also Eiden’s recurring “widely-separated breasts” line doesn’t appear here, so maybe it’s something he only used occasionally as his literary calling card. We are often reminded of Holly’s “heavy breasts,” but even this boobsploitation is nowhere on the level of later Eiden offerings like Operation Weatherkill. So focused is Eiden on the subjugation and dominance of Holly that the actual Heist material is over and done with in a few pages; we’re told Ralph and Holly venture around Europe for “two months” to set up the complex scheme, after which Ralph thankfully deposits Holly in Zurich and hurries back to New York – she has, of course, fallen completely in love with him, hoping for marriage.

Ralph’s third conquest happens immediately after and isn’t as much explored as the previous two. It’s a redheaded beauty named Eilen, and he meets her at his country club, where she rides horses and enjoys the highfalutin life of the jet-set rich. She’s a stewardess, and Ralph doesn’t have to do much in the way of subjugation or domination for her, but Eiden does cleverly work it in when the first time Eileen sees Ralph, he’s screaming at some poor stable hand for failing to take proper care of Ralph’s horse. In other words she’s glimpsed his alpha male dominance from afar. So we get stuff of them romancing, and meanwhile Eiden occasionally reminds us that Ralph’s in the Mafia and there’s a war brewing between his family and the Paluccis.

As is typical with most of Eiden’s work, things come to a sudden head after so many, many pages of stalling and padding. Holly comes back without warning, to catch Eileen in Ralph’s bed, and literally tears her face apart in a shocking scene. Things fly to a conclusion after this, as Holly claims to have been sent back due to a cable she received from Ralph…however Ralph never sent a cable. It’s a setup from the Paluccis, and the finale is almost hamfistedly rushed; major characters are killed off-page, and Ralph assembles the remaining family to discuss going to the matresses…while a squad of Palucci hitmen with Browning Automatic Rifles converge on the scene. It’s memorable at least, and definitely the ending we’ve been expecting since page one, but man if Eiden had only spent more time developing the Mafia subplot instead of hopscotching around so much other incidental stuff. In other words he’s squandered the plot’s potential, something he did – even more drastically – in The Ice Queen.

That said, Eiden’s writing is fine as ever; he has a definite literary touch, same as most other writers in Engel’s stable, yet never lets it get in the way of the narrative flow. But he had a tendency to pad and stall, same as Stokes. Perhaps not as bad as Stokes, but then Stokes was capable of more memorable plots and sequences, whereas a sort of blandness often settles over Eiden’s books. But when he was on form, he could knock them out of the park, as with Crooked Cop. Maybe he just took a while to warm up to the series he was hired for, as Operation Loan Shark was much better than this one.

*In the tradition of Zwolf’s hilarious takes on celebrity lookalikes on cover artwork


MrToddWilkins said...

Do you accept review requests?

Joe Kenney said...

Hi Todd, sorry for the delay in response -- what book did you have in mind for a review? Thanks!