The Aquanauts #8: Operation Steelfish, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972 Manor Books
“Tiger Shark was bored and restless.”
This line, which appears on page 73 of Operation Steelfish, aptly sums up the sentiments of the reader; this installment is a dense trawl of nearly unfathomable boredom, Manning Lee Stokes clearly phoning it in. Given that he invested so much wackiness into the previous volume (man what a great one that was!), it’s no wonder we would have to suffer this time, but boy – this one really sucks. I mean there are some cool parts here and there, and Stokes as ever injects some of his patented weirdness into the narrative, but for the most part Operation Steelfish could be used as a cure for insomnia.
What I still find most curious about The Aquanauts is that Stokes took what was ostenisbly an “underwater commando” setup and instead turned in a lurid crime series with Cold War overtones. Stokes started his career writing crime and mystery so I almost get the impression he just used this series as a vehicle to write about the sort of stuff he himself was more interested in. Apparently series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel accepted this, so far as The Aquanauts went, though he clearly reined in Stokes a bit more with Richard Blade and John Eagle Expeditor. Whereas Stokes hewed a little more faithfully to the setups for those series, in The Aquanauts books there are many, many instances where you get the impression the dude had no idea he was writing an “underwater commando” series.
Operation Steelfish is a glaring case in point. It opens like one of those crime novels Engel “produced” in the ‘70s, with one of Manning Lee Stokes’s favorite motifs: a strangled young woman. I’m so familiar with this guy’s work now that I was surprised the girl wasn’t raped, as well; the whole “strangle-rape” thing is a recurring schtick in Stokes’s work (another being the “incredibly old woman who looks young” schtick, which doesn’t appear in this particular book). This happens near DC and the victim happens to be the secretary on a top secret Navy program; her killer is a hopped-up addict, and Stokes delivers another of his recurring schticks here, by subtly referring to himself: the murderer’s last name is “Manning.”
Actually, this isn’t how the book opens. I forgot. The book actually opens on a brief chapter in which we learn that a young black man named Lyman has just had a sex-change operation, and now has become “Lilli.” And also “he-she” happens to be a sleeper agent for the Commies, in particular reporting to Yuri Sobnnikov, that “Russian James Bond” who injects himself with testosterone and who was last seen in #5: Stalkers Of The Sea. Actually, sex-change is yet another of Stokes’s recurring schticks; as we’ll recall, a minor character was going through “the change” back in #6: Whirlwind Beneath The Sea. But we get a lot more detail about it here, with Lilli taking up large portions of the narrative, with a lot of background on the procedure and how she’s coping with it, and also the fact that she’s nervous because she didn’t tell Sobnnikov she was about to have it done. The Russian spymaster takes it in stride, though, figuring that “Lilli” will be more beneficial to his latest caper than Lyman would’ve been – though first he has one of his people “try out” Lilli (off-page) to ensure she properly handles in bed!
And I mean you look at the cover and you see shirtless Tiger Shark about to knife some scuba guy who has Ringo Starr’s hair, and then you get back to the book – which goes on about sex-change operations and strangled young women – and you wonder what the hell is going on. I should mention here that the cover does illustrate a scene in the book, definitely one of the most taut and entertaining scenes in the entire narrative, but it takes a helluva long time to get there; as ever Stokes fills the pages with tiny, dense print. Eight volumes in a row now and these books only really pick up when “main protagonist” Tiger Shark appears…yet again and again Stokes keeps him off-page for so long that he almost comes off like a supporting character in his own series. This is really taken to absurd levels in Operation Steelfish, which now that I think of it follows the template of the previous Sobhennikov yarn, Stalkers Of The Sea; in that one too Tiger Shark barely appeared, Stokes more content to dwell on a long-simmer Cold War vibe featuring Tom Greene, Tiger’s deskbound commanding officer.
The first quarter of Operation Steelfish deals with the murder of the young Navy secretary, Stokes clearly filling pages – we even get a redundant transcript of the police interrogation of her confessed killer. What brings the Secret Underwater Service into it (eventually) is that the girl was working on the secret “Steelfish” program, which has to do with a “super-missile” the Navy is developing and is about to try out near Portofima, an island “south of Haiti and Cuba.” The murdered secretary it turns out had a small Russian spy camera on her, which has set the events in motion (no specification of the month or year, this time); after much, much narrative padding we learn that crusty old Admiral Hank Coffin, boss of the SUS, wants to keep the testing of Steelfish in play so as to trap the Russians – he is certain they got hold of the missile’s plans, thanks to the girl’s spy camera. Part of the frustration of Operation Steelfish is that Stokes keeps so much of this from us; Coffin’s plans are a mystery even to Greene, and are only revealed in the very final pages.
And the bitch of it is, it’s a real boring ride to get to those very final pages; I mentioned above that these books only pick up when Tiger Shark appears, but Stokes was either unaware of that fact or in denial of it. For he keeps Tiger off-page whenever possible, focuing on sundry one-off characters. In addition to that “lovely slim Negro girl” Lilli, there’s also Sobnnikov himself, and we learn he’s burning for personal revenge on Greene and Tiger from the events in the fifth volume. Not that anything comes of this; there’s no personal confrontation among these characters. Greene spends the majority of the narrative on the deck of a ship, and Tiger spends it in KRAB or posing as a “beach bum” on a small boat outside Portofima – a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and comes off like Stokes just trying, again, to keep Tiger off-page as long as possible. There’s also a 97 year-old American named Hunter who runs a private eye firm, is fabulously wealthy, and takes the job from Sobnnikov to help get the Steelfish missiles because he hates America, given that it’s now run by minorities and such.
Really, these characters take up more narrative space than the recurring characters; even Admiral Coffin has more narrative focus. Tiger doesn’t even score, which is surprising enough – I honestly wondered if Stokes was about to “go there,” with Tiger having sex with Lilli, unaware that it’s a “he-she.” And indeed, Stokes seems to toy with this, having Lilli meet Greene on Portofima, but he’s such an honest married guy that she just thinks of him as a kind person, and instead sets her sights on some other guy Sobnnikov has told her to entertain. Lilli features in the only sexual material in the novel, the sequence relayed from this guy’s perspective, him unaware that Lilli was previously a man – something he will be informed of, with diastrous consequences, in the final pages. But it’s the usual Stokes weird version of sleaze: “He spurted into her voracious mouth,” and the like.
At great length Tiger is sent to Portofima, stuck in KRAB for a week or so, then ordered to leave it and board the abandoned boat which is to serve as part of his beach bum cover. Again, we readers are not given any reason for any of this stuff, Stokes keeping us in the dark throughout, so that it not only is boring but frustrating as well. At least here we get some entertaining stuff, like when Tiger finds a couple drunks on the boat, guys who happened to pass by and discover it, and he boards the ship in full “Aquanaut” gear, with the metal helmet and all, making unearthly noise through the speaker grills to scare the guys off. This does have repercussions; Tiger doesn’t kill the guys, despite his hunch that he should, and later Sobnnikov will learn of the incident, thanks to a native guide he hires in Portofima. (A guide named “Sharkie,” Stokes apparently oblivious that his main character is codemaned “Tiger Shark” and that these similar names might cause confusion in his already-confused and bored readers.)
Again, this sets the stages for some action; Sobnnikov is certain the figure from the deep who scared these two drunks is none other than Tiger Shark, and also that he’s losing his edge given that he didn’t kill them. But there’s no part where Tiger and Sobnnikov ever meet. The Russian spymaster stays on the sidelines throughout, ordering around his various underlings like chess pieces. The highlight of the novel is the event depicted on the great cover; Tiger, upon boarding the boat, tosses his Aquanaut gear into the sea so as to maintain his cover. So wearing only a snorkel and a jockstrap(!), he ventures out into the sea one night to monitor a suspicious boat – one Admiral Coffin suspects might be working for the Reds. This leads to a bizarre bit where Tiger gets his ass kicked by the ship’s captain: a super-fat woman who sneaks up on Tiger from behind and gets him into a bear hug that he barely breaks out of.
After this Tiger discovers a couple guys in scuba gear on his boat, planting explosives. He trails one of them and, when his boat explodes in the distance, he uses the distraction to yank one of them below the water and knife him to death. A pretty brutal action scene…and the only one we get in the novel. Even here Tiger is stuck on the sidelines by Stokes; he has to swim many miles to get back to KRAB, but has to wait until night, so spends an entire day hiding near an islet. Stokes does like putting his hero through the grinder; there’s a gripping scene where Tiger, uncertain how much air is left in his appropriated scuba tank, must swim one hundred feet below the surface, in pitch black, to locate KRAB. However Stokes sort of blows it by ending the sequence with Tiger about to commit to the final plunge, after which there’ll be no way out – he’s so far below the surface he couldn’t make it back up if his scuba tank were to run out – but next time we see him, he’s safely in KRAB. The final mad dash to KRAB is rendered in quick backstory, ruining the suspense Stokes so carefully constructed.
This takes us into the finale, which has the Russians spring their plan. A sub comes out of the sea, takes the missile, and Coffin orders it followed by KRAB. Coffin’s plan was to set off a remote-control destruct button on the missile, but it doesn’t work, so it’s up to Tiger to finish the job. This entails him being chased by the sub and scoring a lucky shot, hitting the missile itself. The last we see of him he’s spinning through the sea in a damaged KRAB; we’re informed at the end he’ll be in the hospital a bit but he’ll be just fine and dandy afterwards. The same can’t be said for poor Lilli, though; Sobnnikov has a firm “no witnesses” clause, thus writes a letter to the guy who has been obliviously boffing Lilli these past weeks, informing him that Lilli was once a dude. This does not go well for Lilli; we’re informed she’s tied up and slapped around and then the guy breaks out his “surgical instruments;” he’s a torture artist, and Stokes delights in informing us that the guy’s very mean in the ensuing torture and Lilli takes a long time to die!
This one was really boring, folks, and came off like a slap in the face after the supremely entertaining previous volume. There are a few more volumes left in the series, so here’s hoping none of them are bummers on the level of Operation Steelfish.