Monday, December 14, 2020

Mission: Impossible #3: Code Name: Rapier

Mission: Impossible #3: Code Name: Rapier, by Max Walker
No month stated, 1968  Popular Library

No idea who served as “Max Walker” for this penultimate volume of the Mission: Impossible series; it might’ve been the same author as the previous volume, I’m not sure. Michael Avallone is usually pegged, but supposedly he himself said he didn’t write it, and besides the flat prose style is nothing like Avallone’s. Whoever it was, he (or she!) clearly had no understanding of the actual TV series; Code Name: Rapier is just a generic pulp-spy novel, with absolutely nothing unique about the Impossible Mission Force. Indeed the team is usually one step behind “The Other Side” throughout the book, leading to a climax in which team leader Jim Phelps breaks his cover to ask someone for help – and the only time something like that ever would’ve happened in the show, it too would’ve been revealed as just another facet of Phelp’s master strategy. 

All of which is to say, the show presented an IMF team that was almost godlike, in that every little detail of every mission was carefully plotted and executed. And just as they were masterful strategists, they were also ciphers in the personality department. Not true in either case, here, with the team fumbling through the assignment and also joking around with each other throughout. Again, the author had likely never seen the show, same as with the previous volume – there’s also a bit more action here than in the series, but nothing too outrageous. Actually the “climax” features the IMF taking on a gang of imposters…fighting and capturing them all in the span of a single paragraph. The most interesting action scene isn’t even explained; some guy waits with a submachine gun in Phelps’s apartment, but is taken out by some unknown person courtesy some poison gas. Otherwise the book is very rushed, and more narrative focus is placed on the one-off character the IMF team is tasked with protecting. 

Dr. Roberto Blackthorn is this character, a scientist who has invented a miniature computer which makes possible a host of things that would give America the edge in the Cold War. But word is “The Other Side” (aka “Them”) will try to kidnap Blackthorn…there might even be a third party behind a possible abduction attempt. Phelps is briefed on all this in a novel way: ripping apart a stuffed doll in a factory to find the customary briefing tape. After this it’s back to his New York loft where he looks at the IMF dossiers and picks the usual group: actor Rolin Hand, muscleman Willy Armitage, electronics whiz Barney Collier, and blonde sexpot Cinnamon Carter, who is again described in such a way that the reader in no way envisions Barbara Bain. This “putting together the team” is the last part of the novel that even seems like Mission: Impossible; from here on out it’s just a generic spy yarn, where the carefully-chosen IMF members could’ve been replaced by any other agent and not a difference would be made. 

As mentioned Blackthorn really gets the most narrative time. Rather than the frosty “scientist type” of cliché, he’s a brash, brazen young man given to chewing on unlit “stogies” and hitting on any woman who catches his eye. He’s also got a soft spot for mod discotheques (and really who doesn’t??), as he visits two of them in the course of the short novel. We first meet him in one, checking out the mini-skirted go-go dancers who hip-shake away to the “hard rock” group on the stage. He’s a loudmouthed jerk, and Walker does a poor job of conveying how such a guy would even have the time or wherewithal to come up with a slew of electronic inventions. Blackthorn takes up a lot of the narrative, too, giving the impression that Walker was more comfortable writing about this character he created than the IMF protagonists. 

Otherwise the feel of the show is completely absent. There’s a part that would be more at home in The Man From UNCLE where some mysterious assassin breaks into Phelps’s apartment, gets a submachine gun out of a briefcase, and waits patiently for Phelps to arrive so he can blow him apart. But instead the would-be assassin is killed by poison gas, which emits from a piece of paper his prey slips under the door. It’s cool and all, but doesn’t seem like something from Mission: Impossible. More importantly, it turns out later that it wasn’t even Phelps who killed the assassin, as when Phelps does return to his room he deduces that someone has broken into it and tries to figure out what they did. Eventually he finds a nasty anti-personnel mine has been hidden beneath his mattress. Here we learn that Phelps is a veteran of the Korean War; I’m assuming this is another invention of Walker’s, as Phelps and the others were such ciphers in the show they didn’t even have much in the way of background stories. 

Blackthorn has been invited to a science conference in St. Michel, an isle in the Caribbean. Phelps and team are to secretly guard against any potential abduction attempts. Phelps will pose as a lawyer for a patent company, Cinnamon as his secretary, Barney as an employee in Blackthorn’s hotel, and Willy and Rolin as “loud American tourists.” That’s it, folks. That’s the extent of Phelps’s strategy. Even more shockingly, absolutely nothing is done with the setup. Whereas in the show Phelps and team would roll out with a minutely-plotted plan in which every step – and potential misstep – was planned for, here it’s clearly just the author following an outline with no real understanding of the why of it all. As it is, the Phelps and team of this novel could be replaced by any other generic spy heroes. 

And as with the previous book Cinnamon is presented as the honey trap, a gorgeous blonde dish who could ensnare any man. As she does with Blackthorn, at one point going with him to yet another mod discotheque – probably the highlight of the novel, with yet another hard rock band playing in a club filled with psychedelic lights. But this part is goofy; there are big screens in the club, playing clips from old monster movies, one of them King Kong. And Cinnamon, dazed by the flashing lights, seems to hallucinate Kong reaching out from the screen and grabbing her – and apparently this is exactly what happens. A bizarre plot development that is never explained. Long story short, the IMF team is being picked off one by one, but this is a pretty “G” rated novel and none of them are killed. It’s just curious that this scenario is never explained, as the last we see of Cinnamon she’s doing a tribute to Fay Wray, being lifted up into the air by King Kong.  

Barney’s also abducted, and soon thereafter so are Rollin and Willy. Phelps eventually gets on the ball and realizes a pseudo-IMF team is afoot, made up of lookalikes. Curiously nothing is made of any of this. There’s even a pseudo-Phelps which the real Phelps takes on – after, that is, completely dropping his cover and telling Blackthorn he’s an agent here to protect him. Phelps soon locates his abducted comrades, leading to a painfully anticlimactic fistfight between the fake IMF and the real IMF. It’s over and done in a paragraph – one part that makes me suspect Avallone might’ve been behind this after all is a lame paranthetical aside that Rollin and Barney have a tough time with their opponents, because “in real life the good guys don’t always win.” Of course no insult meant to Avallone, but I could see him writing something like that. 

Even more painfully, the finale is given over to exposition in which the plot is explained to us. We also have the IMF team celebrating that Blackthorn gets away safely. The whole thing lacks the feel of the real show, and while the previous volume at least had some action, this one doesn’t even have that. Fortunately Walter Wager (aka “John Tiger”) returns for the next (and final) volume; he’s clearly the only writer to serve on this series who had actually watched the show.

No comments: