Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Butcher #7: Death Race

The Butcher #7: Death Race, by Stuart Jason
July, 1973  Pinnacle Books

My assumption is Harlequin Books briefly took over The Butcher, at least for this one volume, as James “Stuart Jason” Dockery gives us a slow-moving yarn in which usually-gruff Bucher falls in love with a lovely young Eskimo gal, spends lots and lots of time pondering his feelings, and ultimately decides to quit White Hat and live here in Alaska happily ever after. At the very least, Dockery can be credited for finally straying outside the rigid template he has followed for the preceding six volumes.

I’ll skip my usual belabored rundown of the purgatory-esque sequence of events Bucher experiences in each and every volume: let it only be said that yes, the novel opens with him being tailed by two superdeformed Syndicate goons who knew him back in the day, and yes, Bucher makes short work of them. After which he is, once again, bailed out of jail by a slackjawed local yokel cop who can’t believe this grim-faced killer has such governmental clout. From there to the assignment briefing with the aged Director of White Hat, who has it that the Dewline defense system on the US-Canada border has been compromised.

In yet another similarity to a previous volume, duplicates of the thoroughly-vetted defense personnel are apparently being put in place by a mastermind (or “The Snake,” as Bucher eventually begins to think of him, apropos of nothing). Due to a random accident one of the dupes was outed, and now the Director is frantic that all of the remote Dewline outposts, each manned by one person, have been compromised by lookalikes. But as usual there’s nothing to go on, no leads to track. All White Hat has is a letter the sister of one of the personnel sent to the President, complaining that her brother was acting strange lately, probably due to all the pressure running his outpost. The Director suspects that her brother is one of the dupes.

Bucher flies to Alaska to investigate. It’s page-filling of the most egregious kind as we’re informed of all sorts of “life in Alaska” bullshit. I experienced a bad flashback to the similar page-filling “life among the Eskimos” stuff in John Eagle Expeditor #7. Dockery pulled similar stunts in previous books, usually with shoehorned detail about the Middle East or Egypt or whatever, so this time it’s at least a change of scenery. But it does go on and on, with zero in the way of action. It gets worse when Bucher meets Sonja Rostov, the sister who wrote that letter to the president about her brother – and it’s love at first sight.

The Butcher gets all lovey-dovey as our hard-assed hero finds himself acting like a smitten fool around Sonja. We’re informed she’s not classically beautiful, but appropriately hot, with a jawdropping but petite body. More importantly, there is a “primitive” look about her – she makes her appearance draped in animal skins and wielding a Bowie knife – and gradually Bucher understands that the two are very alike. Soon enough she’s giving him a leather band that symbolically binds them as mates(!). There follows lots of crap seemingly lifted from a RomCom as Bucher relaxes in a steam bath, shocked when Sonja and a female friend happen to see him nude, Bucher embarrassed and getting tongue-tied and etc, and you just wonder to yourself, “When, Lord, when will Bucher start killing people again??”

After an extra-long haul some action presents itself: Sonja is being hassled by two locals, and after an interminable sequence of setting the situation up they arrive in the village. Bucher goes out to confront them, first shooting their dog as a sign of his bad-assery. But other than this it’s anticlimactic as all get-out; Bucher whips out his Walther, and it’s “koosh-koosh,” goodbye both tough guys. We’re back to the romance stuff…and by the way, as ever Dockery is reluctant to provide any explicit material. About all we get is Sonja wrapping her arms around her stomach and murmuring how she feels she’s been “wifed” good and proper. And meanwhile Bucher has decided that this is his last job, he’s going to quit White Hat, stay here in Alaska, and get married.

But Dockery hasn’t forgotten the other mainstay of his series template: the mission Bucher’s been sent here on abruptly changes. Ostensibly he’s here in this backwoods Alaskan village waiting for Sonja’s brother to arrive; White Hat arranged for Rostov to be sent home on a temporary leave of absence, with the idea that Bucher would be waiting here for him and figure out if he’s the real thing or a dupe. Sonja for her part is certain the man she saw a few months ago was not her brother, which is why she wrote that letter. Okay, so we’re waiting for all this to happen. Then the Director swings into town and reveals that Sonja’s brother is not coming, and also it was all a mistake and there really were no “dupes” as such, just personnel who were pretending to be dupes, as part of a diversionary meaure to distract attention from the real plot of the mastermind behind all this!!!

And who is the mastermind? In some of Dockery’s lazier plotting, Bucher early on just happens to see an old photo of some village schoolkids, and one of them has a hideous birthmark on his face. Identical to a Chinese doctor Bucher once knew named Wu who was employed by the Syndicate but was finally retired due to the fact that he liked to strap people up and feed them to his trained dogs. Well guess what, folks. Wu is, believe it or not, the mastermind behind the Dewline plot!! The Director reveals as much, and also that Wu’s real plot appears to be the unleashing of an army of saboteurs into the US.

As if waving a big middle finger at his readers, Dockery then has the big climactic action scene occur off-page; the Director reveals that a team of Marines are right now converging on Wu’s hideout! Indeed, more priority is put on the “big revelation” that the Director’s real name is Sam White; he comments that he always wondered why Bucher never asked him what his real name was(!). So now Bucher’s job is to voyage out into the Alaskan wild and get the list of saboteurs from Wu’s training base, which is of course nearby, him being a hometown boy and all. Bucher will be assisted by an Amazonian White Hat agent named Olga. Sonja of course manages to bully her way into going along on what Bucher vows will be his last mission – he’s already tendered his resignation to the Director.

Now, anyone who even harbors a suspicion that Sonja might make it through Death Race alive is in serious danger of flunking Men’s Adventure 101 (and there is no remedial class!). As Marty McKee succinctly put it, “It comes as no surprise that Sonja doesn’t live to the end of the book.” So of course, she’s dead before the last page. But let’s take a moment to dwell on her murder, which Dockery delivers as expected, but in such a half-assed manner that I had to laugh at his bravado. I mean, Bucher has lost lady loves in previous volumes; it’s part of the template. But this time, we’re led to believe, it’s much different – he plans to marry Sonja, he plans to quit White Hat for her. Yet when Sonja’s assassinated by a sniper, just a few pages before the end of the book, we’re never informed who shot her!

Bucher’s kissing her goodbye, about to make his final assault on Wu’s lair, and Sonja’s shot at that moment. Bucher watches in a daze as she falls, dead…and then the next chapter has him storming in upon Wu, who’s in the midst of feeding a fresh victim to his dogs. Wu is shocked that Bucher is even here; the sadist has so descended into full-blown madness that he’s not even aware his main base has been attacked. Plus he hasn’t seen Bucher since his Syndicate days. We’re informed that Bucher killed off Wu’s two sole security guards on his way in, so that would mean it wasn’t either of them who shot Sonja – not only were they guarding the boss, but the boss wasn’t even aware Bucher was around! So it wasn’t Wu or any of his men who killed Sonja.

So then…who the hell was it? My guess is it must’ve been White Hat itself. In fact it’s the only possibility. The Director is initially startled that Bucher intends to quit, then brushes it off with a smile and something to the effect that he loves how Bucher is a man of his convictions and could make such a life-changing decision so quickly. In reality though, “Iceman” would be too valuable an agent to lose, so clearly Sonja Rostov must die. The more I think of it, I’m sure this was Dockery’s intention. Otherwise no info is given on who killed Sonja, and I’m betting no mention will be made of her in the next novel, which will see the usual “game reset” taking place.

But anyway as mentioned Wu, when we finally meet him, is about to feed an old Eskimo man to his dogs. And it still drives me nuts that Dockery creates these crazy, disgusting villains and never properly exploits them. I mean, Wu has two brains, one of them on his face, and he gets his jollies tying people up and setting his dogs loose on them! But as with all the other main villains in the series, Wu stays off-page for the duration, only showing up right before the very end – and only then to meet his expected fate: becoming dog food. At least Dockery goes full-bore with the graphic violence here, with Bucher feeling like he’s about to puke as he watches. Not that he stops watching it.

Here’s the last paragraph:

Bucher stared grimly at the grisly scene for a long half minute, then turned from it and headed out of the cave toward the cabin, the bitter-sour taste of galling defeat strong in his mouth.

On an unrelated note, only one post next week – it’ll be up on Wednesday.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Jimi After Dark

Jimi After Dark, by Stephen Mertz
November, 2018  Wolfpack Publishing

First published by Perfect Crime in 2017 (with an atrocious cover), now brought out in a new edition by Wolfpack Publishing (with a much better cover), Jimi After Dark is an action-filled yarn that combines Ennis Willie with Swinging London; Stephen Mertz even dedicates the novel to Willie, so the tone is unmistakable. The book also comes off like Don Pendleton at times – and let’s not forget Pendleton sent his own two-fisted hero to Swinging London, in Assault On Soho.

Regardless, this is a fun, inventive mixing of influences: psychedelic rock meets hardboiled action. And there certainly is more action here than you’d find in something by Hard Case Crime, evidence of Stephen’s history with Gold Eagle Books (not to mention his sort of apprenticeship with Pendleton himself). It seems as if our hero, the anonymous “Soldier,” is constantly either getting shot at, knocked out, beaten up, threatened, chased, or just in general mistreated. He does though manage to pick up one of those infamous English “birds,” though. Actually she’s a Houston transplant, so maybe she doesn’t count as an English bird after all.

The novel is an effective mystery thriller, and takes place in the very last days of Jimi Hendrix – I mean like the last three or so days before he died, on September 18, 1970. Stephen wisely keeps Jimi as a supporting character; only the prologue and a few other brief sequences, all of which are in third-person, feature him in the sole spotlight. Otherwise he is a supporting character, usually off-page, with Soldier carrying the brunt of the tale, and narrating it for us. As mentioned Soldier wishes to be anonymous; he tells no one his name, and Jimi, who knows what it is, doesn’t tell anyone, either. Eventually I pretended that Soldier was just Mark Stone…or maybe even John Cody.

All we do know is that Soldier’s the same age as Jimi, 27, and he sports a facial scar. (So if my Stone/Cody theory is valid, we’ll just have to discount that!) He’s just rotated out of ‘Nam and is on his way to Germany when we meet him. But first he’s making a brief stopover in London to help out his old pal, none other than Jimi Hendrix – the two were stationed together during Jimi’s ultra-brief Army career and became fast friends. We know from the outset that Soldier owes Jimi his life; later in flashback we see that Jimi prevented Soldier’s brains from getting blown out at a black bar, near their base.

But that was a few years ago; the Jimi of late 1970 is in some ways a different person. Withdrawn at times, worn out from years of incessant touring, a little bitter. He wants to be back in America, in the new studio he just opened in Manhattan: Electric Lady, but he’s stuck here in Europe on this tour his manager, Mike Jeffrey, insisted he do so as to pay all the mounting bills. Jimi’s also in hock to some underworld types for money he borrowed. But now there seems to be a new element to it all, and Jimi is paranoid that someone’s out to do him in. Soldier’s here because he received a note from Jimi – they’re penpals of sorts – asking Soldier to stop by when he flies into London, because Jimi needs some help.

Soldier for his part doesn’t tell us much about himself. He’s fresh out of the shit in ‘Nam and he’s old buddies with Jimi. Soldier not only doesn’t want to tell us his name, he also doesn’t want anyone he meets to know his name. Even when his ID is confiscated, his name is not mentioned. Of course, the heaviest Pendletonisms are courtesy Soldier’s narration; not just in how he periodically flashes back to stuff in Vietnam, usually when he’s knocked out (and folks Soldier gets knocked out a whole bunch), but in how he uses his jungle warfare background to frame his experiences in London. Just as Pendleton would introduce a concept or theme early in a volume of The Executioner and then reinforce it throughout the narrative (sometimes relentlessly), so too does Soldier compare and contrast his ‘Nam background with this current caper in London as he tries to figure out who means Jimi harm.

And so just who is trying to kill Jimi Hendrix?? Everyone, that’s who! Humorously, it appears that everyone’s out to get poor Jimi – in this book he’s not only abducted but also dangled from a rooftop, and just in general is threatened with bodily harm throughout. It appears that Stephen has personified Jimi’s various personal and business problems into real-life foes; even his manager, Mike Jeffrey (whose name has really been dragged through the mud since he died in ’73), is presented as a thug-employing crime kingpin. I almost expected Noel Redding to show up wielding a meat cleaver. Seriously though, Stephen doesn’t bother too much with the music side of Jimi’s life; the opening sequence takes place at Jimi’s last official concert, at the Isle of Fehmarn in Germany, and Jimi’s band members (Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell) aren’t even named.

Speaking of which, Stephen has whittled down the cast of characters who surrounded Jimi in his final days, removing some and adding others of his own creation. Of the missing ones, Devon Wilson would be first and foremost. Anyone who knows about Jimi’s life will know of Devon, the super-groupie who inspired the track “Dolly Dagger.” Her outrageously complex relationship with Jimi entailed everything from being his live-in girlfriend in New York to acting as a female pimp for him. She was in London these final days, in fact had a mysterious encounter with him the night of his death, but she’s not to be found in Jimi After Dark.

However, Jimi’s other girlfriend of the day, Monika Dannemann, is here, and Stephen successfully captures this needy, domineering woman who appears to have implanted herself like a parasite on Jimi in his final days. Soldier meets her early on and forms an instant dislike for her, and it’s hard not to blame him. Jimi for his part excuses the clingy German blonde, saying she’s a sweetheart or whatever. Meanwhile little does Jimi know that Monika has inadvertently brought even more problems upon him: Soldier soon takes on a group of German crooks who have come here to London to harm Jimi, so as to make themselves look good to Monika’s ultra-wealthy family, as none of them like the idea of Monika running around with a black man.

Upon his arrival at Heathrow, Soldier meets the first of the fictional characters Stephen has placed in Jimi’s life: her name is Syndney Blanchard, and she’s a pretty redheaded Londoner who comes from a wealthy family but likes to mingle with the rock stars of the day. She approaches Soldier seeming to know where Jimi is, but not giving him any info – later we’ll learn she’s trying to protect Jimi. And anyway we promptly learn why, as Stephen presents us with the first of many such action scenes that will ensue: Soldier, still in his uniform, is accosted by a couple punks and makes short work of them, seriously injuring one of them.

When Soldier tracks down Jimi, who is staying at a crash pad, it’s to Stephen’s credit that he doesn’t sap it up. Jimi comes here to hang out with Angel, an American expat hippie babe from Houston (she’s another of the fictional characters), and to get away from the heavy shit going on in his life. Stephen presents us with a haggard and stressed-out Jimi who is nothing like the ultra-mellow guy more familiar to those who love him so much. And by all accounts Jimi was seriously stressed in his final days; it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy and the miserable fate he suffered.

But Jimi at times doesn’t come off very well in the novel, not very bright on what’s going on, who is after him, or how in deep he is. Soldier also doesn’t like all the drugs Jimi takes – there’s a curious anti-drug stance in Jimi After Dark, given that it takes place in 1970 – and the drugs only serve to make Jimi seem even more addled and clueless. He also doesn’t play as much music as you’d expect, though again the novel only occurs over a few days. But as mentioned, Stephen wisely keeps Jimi off-page for most of the novel, only occasionally featuring him in his own scenes.

Soldier is the star of the show, and he’s very much in the Mack Bolan/Mark Stone mold. He storms his way through London trying to find out who is hassling Jimi, finding the time along the way to almost hook up with Syndey and ultimately to hook up with Angel. He’s also framed for the murder of a female character, and this proves to be the central mystery of Jimi After Dark, which makes sense; I mean the whole world knows that Jimi himself is dead, so there’s no mystery there. This frame makes Soldier a wanted man, so along with the other sundry characters he goes up against while protecting Jimi, there’s also a bulldog of a cop after him.

As for Jimi, at one point he’s abducted and strapped to a chair for a day or so; in the Afterword, Stephen says this was inspired by a comment the real Jimi once made, in 1969, about being briefly abducted. No one knows if he was being serious or not, but Stephen took this ball and ran with it, just changing up the dates a little. Jimi we learn has been captured by a group of thugs he borrowed money from, one of the thugs being Angel’s ex-husband. But then there’s the question of who hired these thugs to capture Jimi, and why they want him dead. Jimi actually takes his captivity pretty well, even attempting an escape at one point. That being said, he sort of gets over it a little too quickly in the finale, casually heading off to a nightclub for what will be his last gig.

Meanwhile Soldier busts heads and tracks leads as he tries to find Jimi; at one point he runs afoul of the German thugs, and later on he meets a dude who claims to be a former CIA agent who desperately needs to get in touch with Jimi, because the United States government is trying to kill him. Here it’s brought up that Jimi has been making positive comments about the Black Power movement and etc, and thus the uber-evil Nixon administration wants him dead. In reality Jimi Hendrix had ascended beyond race, just one of the bujillion things that were so cool about him. I’ve read my share of Jimi Hendrix interviews, and he rarely talks about being black. He literally cared nothing about race – “no matter what color the eyes or armpits might be,” as he once wonderfully put it. I’ve also seen a few interviews where he claimed the Black Panthers were going about things the wrong way, so I’d guess any such involvement with them would’ve ultimately proved short lived. 

Regardless, this conspiracy theory is a central thread of Jimi After Dark, at least in how it’s one of the main efforts to kill off Jimi. This meeting with the former agent leads to another running action scene, as Soldier and Angel are fired at by a hidden sniper. Ultimately we’ll learn the CIA is involved with Jimi’s abduction, and it’s up to Soldier and Angel to come to his rescue – that is, after a little kinkiness between the two. Stephen gets slightly risque as Angel treats Soldier to a little down-home hospitality; it’s more action than Bolan ever got on page, that’s for sure.

One can also tell that Stephen is more invested in this tale than he was in, say Saigon Slaughter or whatever; the tone is somewhat the same, but there’s more care and craft in the telling. Things are always entertaining, and the characters come off as three-dimensional. I do feel that the mystery angle got a little in the way of the action, particularly the long outing of the true killer in the climax, which is relayed via dialog. I only say this because it comes after the scene in which Soldier rescues Jimi, which features dudes getting their faces blown off. But then this mystery schtick is part of the hardboiled template.

I actually suspected I’d get a different story in Jimi After Dark. There are enough mysteries in Jimi’s death, let alone any CIA hit teams, German thugs, or shady managers. The chief mystery of them all would be what happened in Jimi’s final hours. This is because the last person with him, Monika, changed her story countless times over the years. According to her story (or one of her stories, at least), Jimi took some of her sleeping pills after drinking a lot of wine at a party, and when Monika woke up early in the morning, Jimi was sick, so she called the ambulance, and rode in it with Jimi to the hospital. Monika further claimed that the paramedics improperly strapped Jimi into a sitting position, and when he tried to vomit in his comatose state he was unable to move and thus choked to death on his own vomit, right there in the ambulance. This is the story most early Hendrix bios stick to, among them David Henderson’s phenomenal Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age (aka ’Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky in its paperback edition), which I intend to review shortly.

The only problem is, the story is bullshit. Many years later the paramedics who arrived on the scene were finally tracked down and interviewed. They each stated that no one was in the apartment when they arrived, and also the door was unlocked. Monika was not there, nor did she ride in the ambulance with them. They also stated that Jimi had clearly been dead for quite a while, given that the inside of his mouth was turning black. However they went through the fruitless motions of reviving him before putting him in the ambulance. The coroner later determined that Jimi had been dead for at least seven hours before the paramedics arrived, placing his death around 4AM. As for who called the ambulance, again, we only have Monika’s dubious word on that. Records of such things weren’t kept back then.

Long story short, it would appear that Jimi’s death is just what it’s seemed to be all along – an unfortunate, easily-avoided mistake. He took too many of Monika’s powerful sleeping pills and choked to death on his vomit, unable to move because of the barbiturates in his system. The question is, why wasn’t anyone there to help him? Or was Monika indeed there, but asleep at the time, and woke to find Jimi’s corpse and freaked out, running out of the apartment, her later stories just a way of repressing her memory of the truth? Part of this must be true, as apparently she called Eric Burdon of War and he and some others cleaned the place of drugs and guitars, steering clear of the corpse on the bed, before they called the ambulance.  (Priorities, people!)  Or was Jimi indeed murdered, waterboarded with wine by Mike Jeffrey and a few cronies as Tappy Wright claimed in his 2009 book Rock Roadie? (Overlooking the fact that Mike Jeffrey was in Spain, not London, on the night Jimi died…not to mention that Tappy later admitted he made it all up to drive book sales!)

But here’s another weird sidenote…on July 30th, 1970, Jimi was in Hawaii, doing a private concert for the film Rainbow Bridge, an occult, New Age-themed hippie movie financed by Mike Jeffrey. Jimi, asked by Jeffrey to appear as “himself” in the film, got drunk for his appearance so as to quell his nerves. I mean he literally stumbles onto the scene chugging from a bottle of wine. In this brief sequence shortly before the end of the film, Jimi engages in a nonsensical stoned rap with the lead female character and a “young guru” type in a goofy headband (none other than director Chuck Wein himself). Jimi describes an out of body experience in which he astrally voyages above the Sphinx and meets Cleopatra. He’s been drinking in the astral trip, too, and he relays that he suddenly feels the need to puke up the wine. But he holds it in because he wants to play it cool for Cleopatra: “The grape chokes me almost. But I can’t let the choke come out.” He then mimics choking on vomit. It’s all very creepy, because this is exactly how Jimi died less than two months later. Was he experiencing a premonition?

Check out this concise but thorough overview of Jimi’s last days, which gives all the pertinent info and also debunks the conspiracy theory that Jimi was waterboarded with wine.  The entire website is a treasure trove of Hendrix info and is highly recommended!

But anyway, none of this is actually in Jimi After Dark, so I apologize for the interminable detour.  And Stephen has written a novel, so he is not beholden to catering to facts or theories. In his book, Jimi’s death happens between chapters and is relayed in mournful backstory by Soldier, who sort of implies that Jimi died by his own hand. Or maybe it was another a backup CIA hit team. Either way, it’s a miserable loss, and Soldier – who as mentioned is telling us this tale years later – has already mourned him, thus doesn’t treat us to histrionics when he and Angel hear that Jimi’s dead on the car radio. Despite which, it is the ultimate in buzzkill to learn that Jimi’s died between chapters, given that the entire book was all about Soldier trying to save his life!

Soldier does tell us that many years later he met Angel again, this time in Texas, thus implying there is another tale to tell. I enjoyed the character and wouldn’t mind reading another story with him, but it won’t be the same without Jimi. Anyway, I definitely recommend Jimi After Dark, and I’m happy to see it’s available again…when I tried to track down the original Perfect Crime edition, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Luckily now it’s available from Wolfpack – and as mentioned with a much more fitting cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way…

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Dark Angel #4: The Godmother Caper

Dark Angel #4: The Godmother Caper, by James D. Lawrence
July, 1975  Pyramid Books

Friends, it’s a damn shame this was the last volume of Dark Angel. While James D. Lawrence floundered with the previous volume, this time he turns in a wild, wild novel that comes off like 192 pages of madcap sleaze. His operating principle appears to have been: When in doubt, have someone try to take advantage of heroine Angie “The Dark Angel” Harpe. And boy do they try to take advantage of her throughout The Godmother Caper, sometimes in the most outrageous ways imaginable.

Just like last time, it’s clear that Lawrence is plowing ahead with no clear direction for the narrative. But last time this resulted in a ponderous, repetitive book with few thrills. This time he practically throws everything in just to keep things moving. More importantly, everything is ramped up in this final volume. While the series was always pretty kinky, this time it’s downright hardcore – not up to the pages-filling boffs of The Baroness, but much more detailed in Angie’s frequent sexual shenanigans, whereas previous books would just give some juicy details and then fade to black. Here Angie gets it on in graphic splendor throughout, and Lawrence even treats us to a girl-on-girl scene as Angie seduces a “closet lesbian.”

Also the violence has been greatly expanded; I think the previous volume was the first time Angie even killed anyone, and that was only relayed briefly, almost as an aside, in the final pages. This time she’s “drilling” would-be rapists and muggers left and right, blowing them away with her Baby Browning or backup .25 with nary a thought. Previously she’d just bust some heads with her martial arts skills or her lead bar-lined purse and then run away. Now the Dark Angel plays for keeps, resulting in a novel that has more graphic sex and violence than the previous three installments combined. Lawrence also doles out an eleventh-hour subplot in which it’s revealed that Angie, in the past, has done contract spy work for various super-secret intelligence agencies, some of them “kill” missions, implying that future volumes might’ve seen the series progress in more of a Baroness direction.

Regardless, Angie is in full private eye mode here, as usual offered a job that turns out to be vastly more complicated and dangerous than she initially suspects. Only problem is, the back cover copy sort of blows the mystery. Angie’s approached by a platinum blonde in “goofy” glasses with “voluptuous tits;” as ever, the cover art faithfully captures characters and scenes from the novel, even down to the “Negroid Faye Dunaway(!)” ensemble Angie sports for this meeting. The blonde gives her name as “Marilyn Johnson” even though her cigarette case is stamped “GM.” Angie will spend the upcoming 180-some pages of dense, small print pondering over who this woman really is, until late in the game she realizes it’s the infamous “Godmother” of New York’s most exclusive cathouse, thus the “GM” on the woman’s case. Meanwhile, the back cover text – not to mention the title of the novel – already clues us in.

Marilyn Johnson offers Angie five thousand bucks to look into the rape of her 20 year old niece, who says she was just raped on the streets of Manhattan by a Mafia torpedo named Carlo Fosca. Angie, suspecting there’s a lot more to this than she’s being told, takes the job, and when she goes to Fosca’s place she finds a pair of balls nailed to the wall. Perhaps Lawrence wanted to be sure we were aware that this would be a “balls to the wall” sort of novel. And it is, as Angie’s jumped right on the scene by a pair of hoods who try to rape her. Lawrence is one of the few men’s adventure writers to offer topical details of his era, and it’s these touches I love so much; he also often mentions rock acts of the day, and this folks has got to be the one and only mention of Black friggin’ Sabbath in a ‘70s action novel, as Angie’s forced to strip and dance a go-go to “a hot and heavy number” by Ozzy and the boys.

This sequence in a nutshell gives us another indication of the prime concern of the novel: Angie getting raped. Indeed one almost gets the intention that it was Lawrence’s express purpose to piss off any feminist who might, for whatever reason, happen to read The Godmother Caper. Angie throughout is getting stripped down, fondled, assaulted, and nearly raped, and that’s not even mentioning the number of times she’s propositioned. In one particular sequence she actually throws a guy a mercy fuck just to get the intel he’s promised her. The rape stuff was there in previous volumes, but like the sex and violence it’s been ramped up tremendously this time; here the two hoods in Fosca’s place force Angie to strip and then one prepares to rape her while she’s forced to give the other a blowjob. Or as Lawrence refers to her as she performs the act: a “n – fellactrice!” For once again, Angie’s only referred to as black (in the most derogatory manner possible, of course) when she’s being mocked; otherwise she’s consistently referred to as “bronze-skinned.”

Here we also get our first taste of how Lawrence is just going to keep throwing plot developments at us, some as arbitrary as can be – the most egregious being the aforementioned bit where Angie, apropos of nothing, is contacted by a “glutinous”-voiced Peter Lorre type who works for a top secret agency called ALICE and tries to draft Angie’s services, complete with a necklace he insists she wear which serves as a two-way radio and homing beacon. It can also tighten on her throat Running Man style, to the point of decapitation, so as to keep her in line; the “slave collar,” the cretinous agent calls in – and then goes on to inform Angie he must know all of his female agents “carnally.” You guessed it, another attempted rape ensues, with Angie saved at the last moment by her main squeeze in the novel, a young stud named Jeff North. After which the two run away – and the incident is just brushed under the narrative carpet. And that’s just one example of the arbitrary subplotting that goes on throughout.

The main plot has to do with an ancient bust of the goddess Selene which was stolen from Turkey and smuggled into the US, eventually landing in the hands of Nimrod North, elderly art dealer who was a friend of Angie’s. But Nimrod’s dead of a heart attack and his hunky nephew Jeff is certain someone caused the cardiac arrest. He runs into Angie when she is, naturally, fully nude, escaping from that attempted rape-blowjob scene described above. She jumps in his car and they take off and Angie knows Jeff can barely contain himself, what with all the “naked tits and pussy” on the car seat beside him. But Jeff’s engaged to a knockout named Beryl who insists on putting off sex, so he doesn’t respond immediately to Angie’s propositions that night in her swanky pad. Of course he eventually gives in, and becomes Angie’s main bedmate.

That isn’t enough for Angie, though, as later on she meets Beryl, who worked as Nimrod’s assistant, and succeeds in seducing her, as well. The second volume had a brief lesbian sequence, but here Lawrence goes full-bore with it. Angie even suggests a three-way, but surprisingly that doesn’t happen. The stuff with Marilyn Johnson and her raped niece and the literally emasculated Carlo Fosca gradually plays into all of this, as does seemingly-unrelated stuff like an anti-rapist and mugger vigilante group and a possibly-related enforcement wing of the group called “LF.” Lawrence gets way out with this; when we finally see the LF in action, sticking up a dingy bar that Angie of course happens to be in, they’re wearing “UFO getups:” green coveralls with masks that have speaker grills that distort their voices. “Buck Rogers stuff,” as another character refers to them, perhaps indicating Lawrence’s past writing the juvenile sci-fi series Tom Swift.

But this is just the framework for lots of sleaze and attempted rapes. The novel occurs over two or three days, and these are hectic days for Angie to say the least. She’ll go from bed with Jeff to almost getting raped on the street to dining at the Y with Jeff’s fiance to a gunfight with some Mafia hoods, all within a few hours, like a Blaxploitation 24 or something. Much of this too is as arbitrary as can be, like when Angie decides to scout around New York to see who is spraypainting all the vigilante slogans, finds one guy in the act, and sneaks up on him, only to discover too late that he’s spraypainting an anti vigilante message! You guessed it, this guy tries to rape her, too – indeed, he strips off her panties and prepares to do her “Greek” style. Or rather, “Angie could feel his penis start to anally penetrate her.” But Angie manages to save herself with a ring that contains a small but razor sharp stiletto.

It goes on like this throughout, with action and sex sprinkled here and there. The Godmother stuff doesn’t even play out until the final pages; Angie spends more time chasing various leads and red herrings trying to track down the missing bust of Selene. The finale brings it all together, though, with Angie retaining the services of a ‘Nam pilot vet (a smooth black guy who likely would’ve turned up again in ensuing volumes) who drops her and Jeff off on the Godmother’s Manhattan building. Dressed in black jumpsuits with hoods and toting Sten submachine guns (a recurring theme from the finales of previous volumes), the two storm the cathouse. Lawrence busily wraps everything up here, and even manages to throw in a guy with an acid-disfigured face who wears a metal mask and mummy-like wrappings.

And I haven’t even mentioned all the other random wildness, like the part where Angie, offered a job by a creepy old Mafia don, instead pulls her gun on him and forces his men to strip and strike homosexual poses for photographs that will be used for blackmail purposes, should the don attempt any reprisals on her! Or when Angie visits the Godmother’s cathouse and deems the place a “veritable cuntropolis,” given the number of customers and sex acts being performed behind unlocked doors. Or the guy who gets Angie in a chair with cuffs that rotates around and turns into, you guessed it, a handy platform for raping her. Lawrence has so much fun with this particular sequence that he doesn’t even bother telling us how Angie breaks free of the cuffs, though I figure she used that stiletto ring.

Really, The Godmother Caper suffers from a lot of problems – messy plotting, random subplots, bald exposition serving as plot developments. But as trash it’s pure gold. It was by far my favorite volume in the series, and really I enjoyed them all except for the third one, which was tepid. But this one makes me wish there had been a fifth volume. My assumption is the readers of the day just didn’t take to a “bronze-skinned” heroine in the male-dominated world of men’s adventure, and more’s the pity.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Abandon Galaxy! (Commander Craig #2)

Abandon Galaxy!, by Bart Somers
March, 1967  Paperback Library

The second and final volume of the short-lived Commander Craig series is much better than the first one. It seems that Gardner Fox (aka “Bart Somers”) spent the time between volumes actually figuring out what his publisher wanted; whereas in the first book he turned in a juvenile snoozefest with a too-amorphous threat and a lackluster hero, this time he delivers just what Paperback Library no doubt wanted from the beginning: James Bond in space.

And this is the movie Bond for sure; like Connery’s take on the character, Commander John Craig now sexually harrasses all the hot women he meets (playfully, of course), likes to indulge in the occasional bit of gambling, and goes up against oily, despicable villains straight out of SPECTRE. The exploitative elements have been greatly expanded – nothing too explicit, though – with copious mentions of nude women at the various space-dives Craig frequents, waitresses in “transparent boleros,” man-hungry cougar types, etc. The lead female character is even a super high-class courtesan from a planet named Veneria in which all the women are trained love-artists, boasting that they’ve discovered a hundred and some ways to have sex.

There is only infrequent reference to that previous volume; it’s a short time later, and we are informed that Craig has broken up with his girlfriend, Eva Marlowe. No doubt because Fox has learned the last thing you want to give your swinging intergalactic spy is a steady girl. He’s gotta be stone free, baby! Fox has also learned to truly make the series “intergalactic,” too; no more constant mentions of Earth cities. Instead, Fox has gone overboard in the opposite direction; Abandon Galaxy is stuffed with arbitrary mentions of far-off planets, places, and people, not to mention bizarre alien oaths and curses. My favorite would definitely have to be, “By the nine births of Lamarkaan!”

When we reconnect with Craig he’s already on his latest assignment, which sees him watching over a lovely young museum curator on one of those far-flung worlds. Her name is Irla, and she’s become a target of LOOT – the League Of Outer-space Thieves. (Pretty sure that would actually be “LOOST,” wouldn’t it?) Ultimately we’ll learn it’s because the bastards intend to bump her off, replace her with an android, and use the android to steal a priceless artifact belonging to the Rim Worlds and thus start a war between the Empire (aka the US) and the Rim Worlds (aka the USSR). We see from the outset that there will be more action this time, as Craig takes on the LOOT thugs, even engaging them in an air car chase.

Also, Craig is more brutal this time; he melts sundry faces with his “rayer” gun; the novel is by no means gory, but Fox does often mention exploding blood and flesh, which is a far cry from the juvenile tones of the previous book. And also he appropriately exploits his female characters a bit more; we’re often reminded that hot redhead Irla has one helluva nice body, and she’s often getting nude for various reasons. However Fox does not dwell on the juicy details when the bumping and grinding finally happens – all of Craig’s sexual encounters happen off-page.

After all this, Craig looks forward to a nice vacation on Pleasure Planet, a sort of global resort where vacationers can let it all hang out. But on his way to the planet, riding with other vacationers in a massive cruise spaceship, he’s contacted by his boss, Dan Ingalls. This is one of Fox’s more interesting creations: a gadget that rides over the cosmic waves and allows you not only to hear the person you are talking to, but to feel their emotions as well. At least Craig has updgraded from that stupid “sack” he put everything in, last volume. Ingalls informs Craig that LOOT is up to more trouble; they are planning to plant a megapowerful bomb on – you guessed it – Pleasure Planet itself. Once again the hope is to spawn a war between the Empre and the Rim Worlds.

It's all very much on the Bond tip. Craig figures out that one of his passengers is the secret LOOT agent, and sure enough it’s a smokin’ hot babe who is posing as a sexually insatiable “tigress” headed for Pleasure Planet for some illicit fun. Her name is Kla’a Foster, and she’s met at the Pleasure Planet landing site by an oily, creepy-looking obese man named Alfred Bottom, who will soon be revealed as the main villain. True to the template, Bottom and Craig are soon challenging each other in high-stakes gambling matches, and Bottom is wining and dining Craig in his luxurious villa while a half-nude Kla’a sits at his side, tempting Craig. However the two never get it on, and Kla’a is sort of a dropped ball on Fox’s part, only returning to meet her hasty demise – not at Craig’s hand – in the finale.

The main setpiece of the novel is just as depicted on the cover; Craig takes up Bottom on his challenge to Schiamachy, an ancient, rarely-indulged Pleasure Planet feature in which two contestants vie against one other on a sort of elevated chessboard. Each level has a different challenge, and if the contestants survive to the top they have to fight each other to the death. Only Bottom at the last minute reveals he doesn’t plan to compete himself; the rules allow a stand-in, and Bottom will retain the services of his “bruitor” henchman, a massive alien creature with three eyes and tentacles, giving him four arms to bash his human prey.

It's a cool, pulpy scene, with Craig up against a giant spider, an android, and even an invisible killer plant. The battle with the bruitor is also nicely done. The only problem is it’s over too quickly and the novel sort of pads around for the last half. There are some cool pieces here and there, though, like Craig swimming through a monster-infested ocean to spy on Bottom’s beachfront villa. Craig throughout though is able to spend some quality time with his new lead female character: Mylitta, a “dusky” skinned, “slant eyed” ultra babe from the planet Veneria, which isn’t a planet of nasty diseases but one of high-class whores, of which Mylitta is the best of them all. Craig wins her as part of that Schiamachy duel.

Mylitta proves herself to be a memorable character; initially she’s only concerned with her courtesan reputation and is put off by Craig’s constant refusal to bed her(!). This is because Craig’s more concerned with the attempts on his life he’s sure Bottom is about to make, and his concerns of course are quickly validated. But once they finally get all that out of the way (off-page of course), Mylitta becomes more active in the action scenes, even using her disguise skills to make the two of them look completely different so as to elude Bottom and his men. That being said, there’s actually a part where Craig disguises himself as a janitor, folks, complete with a mop and pail. The future!!

The climax plays out in Lewdity City, to which Bottom, Kla’a, and the other LOOT villains have retreated after Craig, with some governmental help, prevents their ship from leaving the planet. Here upper-class citizens come to indulge in their lower-class tastes, posing as bawdy villagers and the like. It’s all very goofy, as is an arbitrary plot point Fox quickly introduces that allows Craig to rally the villagers to his cause and assault Bottom’s fortress. The climax is unexpectedly brutal, though, with eyeballs getting scratched out, people falling to their deaths, and a knock-down, drag-out fight between Craig and Bottom. Also more exploding flesh and blood thanks to Craig’s rayer.

It’s kind of a pity that this wasn’t the first installment of the series; if it had been, perhaps there would’ve been more than two volumes. I feel that Beyond The Black Enigma did little to engender the interest of sci-fi readers of the day, what with its general suckiness and all. In fact I wonder if this is why that first book was reprinted in 1968, to see if there was any interest in further Commander Craig adventures. Clearly there was not, and that was it for the adventures of Commander John Craig.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Soldato #2: Death Grip!

Soldato #2: Death Grip!, by Al Conroy
No month stated, 1972  Lancer Books

The second volume of Soldato is further evidence that this series is more Parker than The Executioner, and Marvin Albert (aka “Al Conroy”) is more intent on writing a crime thriller than an action yarn. That being said, there’s actually more action here than in the first volume, as Johny Morini, former Mafia soldato (aka “soldier”), is fully set on the path of a full-time mob buster.

It’s a couple months after the previous volume, and Johnny (as Albert refers to him, likely cause it’s easier to type all the time than “Morini”) has become a hardscrabble drunk, whereas he was a driven family man in the previous volume. This is because Johnny’s wife has divorced him after losing the child she was carrying – Johnny figures the miscarriage was caused by all the turmoil she endured. So all that messy business taken care of, Albert has given us a Johnny Morini who is free to become the protagonist of a running series, with nothing to tie him down in his all-consuming quest to destroy the Mafia.

I like the setup Albert has concocted: Johnny is contacted by Riley, returning from the previous volume, where he was Johnny’s handler at the State Dept. But now Riley has gone into the private sector, and his legal services have been retained by wealthy Sicilian immigrant Pannunzio, whose brother was killed decades ago by the Mafia. Now old and enfeebled, dying from leukemia, Pannunzio wants to start dishing the Mafia bastards some payback in the short time he has left. He wants Johnny to be his one-man army and will set up a trust fund, managed by Riley, that will fund Johnny’s efforts for years to come.

Johnny debates the offer for a hot second and takes them up on it (otherwise the series would’ve been even shorter!). His first assignment sends him to Pennsylvania, where the story goes down in more rural environs than one might expect. As with the first volume, this appears to be so Albert can work in the extended “man hunted in the wilderness” setpiece he doled out in the previous book, only whereas it was Johnny hunted by two guys in the desert last time, this time it’s Johnny hunted by two guys in the woods.

But anyway Johnny when we meet up with him again has gone through the trouble of setting up his cover identity with the local yokels, posing as a career criminal looking for a big score – the novel seems to occur over a long stretch of time, at least a couple months, but Albert doesn’t much elaborate. Johnny’s target is Don Vigilante, who operates out of Philadelphia. A big failing with Death Grip is that neither Don Vigilante nor his co-ruler/enemy Don Aldo are presented as being overly evil. In fact I don’t think we ever even get a proper understanding of their criminal enterprises. But regardless, they’re Mafia scum and they must be destroyed.

Johnny becomes friendly with a hot but bitter blonde waitress named Laura who soon engages Johnny in some off-page sexual shenanigans; Albert as ever is not one to get sleazy. He does though bring in just a touch of emotional content (to quote my man Bruce Lee); Johnny drinks to forget about his ex-wife and lost child, the path his life didn’t take. To his credit Albert doesn’t schlock this up with the treacle that would be mandatory in today’s fiction; I mean, it’s not like Johnny’s sadness keeps him from banging hot truckstop tramps. Albert certainly doesn’t dwell on any treacle; Johnny sort of develops feelings for hardbitten Laura, whose ex-husband is part of the local mob, but when Johnny finds out she’s being used against her will to spy on him, he hits the road without looking back.

Instead, the crux of the novel is Johnny being hired by Don Vigilante’s men to get himself a job with Don Aldo’s men, so as to foster discord within their ranks! So basically Albert just writes a variation on the main plot of the novel itself; even Johnny must contain his laughter at this development. So Johnny poses again as a career conman looking to get a little family backup, the same bait that worked for him with Don Vigilante’s hoods. He ends up playing the two sides against each other, starting fights when the opportunity arises. A late subplot has Johnny being requested to take part in a heist run by the sadistic Doyle, known for killing cops and innocents in his jobs, not to mention losing most of his own men.

This part seems to be a fake-out – Johnny learns of the job, which involves a hit on a gem run, then says to hell with it and leaves – but comes back pages later when Johnny rips off Doyle and his sole surviving accomplice. This leads to the mandatory “men hunt Johnny” sequence, as Doyle, bearing an M-3 Grease Gun, and his equally-sadistic comrade, bearing a Garand rifle, hunt Johnny through the woods. Unlike last time, Johnny’s better armed here – he has an M1 carbine and a .38. This is a taut, gripping scene, and I’d say better than the similar one in the previous book, most likely because this one’s much shorter and thus more intense.

One thing that makes this sequence stand out is that Johnny’s a central part of it. There are too many sections of Death Grip where our hero steps aside and lets the criminals do one another away. True, it’s due to situations Johnny’s set up, but at the same time I prefer to see my ‘70s lone wolf vigilante blowing out his own mobster brains, not getting someone else to do it for him. For example there’s a climactic shootout between the two families in which Johnny doesn’t even appear. Instead, it’s back to the “tense” tip for the climax, as Johnny’s ambushed by a couple hoods who have figured out his game and have tracked him down.

This is another effective, taut sequence, playing out in a junkyard of battered and smashed cars. It’s a bit ruined by the deus ex machina appearance of a timed explosive Johnny apparently set up beforehand. But after this justice is again dealt from afar, and Albert stays true to the “Johnny Morini the shadow” vibe, with our hero “fading into a limousine” at the close of this assignment and heading off to the next one. He’s become a man without any real identity except as a mob-buster. Pannunzio, we learn in a brief epilogue, has several more missions planned for Johnny, however Albert would sit out the next two volumes (which would be courtesy Gil Brewer), not returning until the fifth (and final) volume.

And is that a tiny Al Jolson on the surreal cover being squeezed to death by the giant disembodied hand? “Mammy!!”

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Ginger Star (The Book Of Skaith #1)

The Book Of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett
May, 1974  Ballantine Books

Two decades after her last published story featuring Eric John StarkLeigh Brackett returned to the character with this paperback original sporting an awesome Steranko cover.* It would be the first in a trilogy dubbed The Book Of Skaith, and unlike those pulp tales of the ‘40s and ‘50s, here Stark would be flung into the far cosmos, Brackett’s “Old Solar System” with its ancient Martians and whatnot now thoroughly discredited by those buzzkilling scientists.

Yet I wonder why Brackett didn’t persist, as Skaith, the outpost-esque planet which orbits the titular “Ginger Star,” is basically a stand-in for Brackett’s Mars, with a little of her Venus thrown in. More pointedly, the year before Lin Carter had begun publishing his own “sequence” of novels inspired by Brackett’s pulp novellas, Mysteries Of Mars, so if he could get away with setting tales on a now-discredited “Old Mars,” then why couldn’t Brackett? My assumption is she must’ve felt the only way for her work to be taken seriously was to cater to the style of the time, thus it was goodbye to her decadent Mars and psychedelic Venus, and more’s the pity.

But other than that…all I can say is, I’m very glad I read Brackett’s early work before reading The Ginger Star. Because the author who wrote this is a pale reflection of the author who delivered such standout novellas as “Enchantress Of Venus,” “The Moon That Vanished,” and “Sea-Kings Of Mars.” Whereas those earlier stories burned with a special kind of fire, filled with inventive ideas, fully-fleshed characters, and memorable dialog, this one is a tired, turgid trawl that endlessly repeats the same sequence of events. And shockingly enough, the characters here are practically ciphers; there was more character depth in Brackett’s pulps, all of which were half the size of this novel.

Without any exaggeration, here’s the plot of The Ginger Star: Eric John Stark will go somewhere on Skaith, meet a few cipher-like characters, exchange some exposition with them, then they’ll all get ambushed and someone will knock Stark out and abduct him. Stark will be taken along by this new group of cipher-thin characters, trading exposition with them, and then another group will spring from the woodwork, ambush them, and take Stark captive. This goes on for the entire novel. There’s even a part a hundred pages in where Stark vows to never be abducted again…which is a laugh, because he’s captured yet again not too long after!!

Or to put it another way…when I read Brackett’s pulp novellas, I was so enthralled that sometimes I found myself re-reading sections. But with The Ginger Star I found myself skimming sections.

I’m not sure how this could’ve happened to a writer of Brackett’s caliber. And certainly she returned to Stark because it was her main character – her Tarzan or Conan – so she must’ve felt some drive to go back to him after so long. In fact I’m sure she wrote the unpublished-for-decades “Stark And The Star Kings” shortly before this one, so it would appear she was planning to return to Stark for a while. And yet even that novella, cowritten with her husband, was subpar, especially when compared to her ‘40s and ’50s material, so had she just lost her mojo?

Regardless, I can’t really recommend this novel, as I found it a trying, tiring read, with little of the spark Brackett once so easily displayed. But for posterity, it goes like this – Eric John Stark when we meet up with him is headed for the distant world of Skaith, newly introduced to the galactic union, something which I believe wasn’t mentioned in those early novellas. But then, not much of those stories are mentioned at all, other than a bit more fleshing out of Stark’s background, in particular how he was raised by a sort of space bureaucrat named Simon Ashton, a character often mentioned but who only appeared in the first Stark novella, “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs.”

Ashton is central to this because he was last seen on Skaith, trying to bring the desolate, decadent, and dying world into the union, and after a couple months boning up on the planet’s culture and languages, Stark is on an interstellar voyage to find him. Not much detail on the space trip, by the way, but it doesn’t appear to last very long – another difference from those earlier yarns, where hyperspace travel didn’t appear to exist. Bracett is more concerned with the Robert E. Howard-esque setting of Skaith, which is fine by me – I’ve never much been into “hard” sci-fi that goes to elaborate lengths of explaining how things work.

When Stark arrives on Skaith it bodes well for the novel ahead; it seems like vintage Brackett, with this dessicated, ancient world and its mysterious people and Stark the mysterious newcomer everyone’s after. There’s a vintage pulp vibe when he takes on these sea creature things, almost holy monsters that the natives of course avoid due to superstition. Stark takes care of one of them with his blade. But sadly that’s about it so far as Stark’s bad-assery goes; he’s been whittled down a bit, same as he was in those mid-‘60s rewrites The Secret Of Sinharat and People Of The Talisman. Because from here on out it’s the endless cycle of Stark meeting some new people, traveling a bit, getting knocked out and captured, traveling some more, then getting knocked out and captured again.

There are interesting touches at the outset, though. Brackett initially seems to be doing a parable of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, with an indolent group of hippies called the Farers who range around Skaith and get high off illegal plants. They’re like the children or something of the never-seen Lord High Protectors, who control the planet from their hidden fortress, the Citadel; a sadistic lot called the Wandsmen are in charge of law and order, apparently serving the whims of the Protectors. Stark runs into the Wandsmen posthaste, as well as their loyal Farers: in particular there’s a fully-nude, bodypainted Farer named Bayas who has an instant lust-hate thing for Stark, trying her damnest to get him killed. But ultimately she’s one of the main characters who is introduced, given lots of narrative space, and then abruptly dropped from the text.

I almost forgot – there’s a prophecy, of course. Some native witchwoman named Gerrith has prophecized that a “dark man” from space will come and lead the people of Irnan to freedom, and he’ll destroy the Citadel, mystical home of the Protectors…it does go on. And apparenty every single person on Skaith has heard of this recent prophecy, so now everyone wants Stark, who is of course clearly this figure from the prophecy. First Stark hooks up with Yarrod, a guru who commands a “pod,” basically real hippies as opposed to the plastic fantastic Farers in that they’re more into hivemind mentality and Oneness and such and not just laying around and getting high.

But this is just another of the many unexplored elements Brackett doles out; we get an offhand statement that these pods only live a few years, implying that the members all die, but instead we get in-fighting between resident tough guy Halk and Stark. Yarrod meanwhile has of course heard of the prophecy and saves Stark from some attacking Wandsmen and Farers; he and his people are from Irnan and have come here to try to find out how to escape the planet. They eventually meet up with prophecy-spouter Gerrith, however it’s the daughter of the woman who made the actual prophecy(!); the original Gerrith has been killed by the Wandsmen due to her “false” Dark Man prophecy.

Anyway this Gerrith is a smokin’ hot blonde and she ends up being Stark’s sole bedmate in the tale…not that Brackett really gets into too much. Gerrith tags along with Stark as he makes his seemingly-neverending journey across Skaith, as does Halk and a few others who don’t do much to make themselves memorable for the reader. And Brackett’s similar names don’t help much – we’ve got Gerrith, Gelnar, and Gerd, all in the same book (one of them’s a dog, by the way). She also rarely describes anything – gone, friends, is the evocative word-painting that was so central to Brackett’s pulp masterpieces. Gone! Action scenes, when they happen, also lack the blood and thunder of vintage Brackett, though Stark does make a few kills in the book.

Stark and company make their laborious way across Skaith, moving from the coastal area into a forest area and finally into a frozen area. The Lords live remote from the people, so remotely that they are considered supernatural beings by the rank and file. Their Citadel is guarded by the large mutant telepath Northhounds, canine beasts that apparently will be featured more in the second volume. Brackett ties in Stark’s oft-mentioned but seldom-displayed “wildman” history in that, thanks to his own “animal” cunning, he’s able to break through the telepathic hold of the Hounds and challenge their leader, thus becoming the alpha of the group. He uses the beasts to run roughshod over the Lords, who of course turn out to be spindly, weak old men.

Folks it was a plumb beating getting through this book. I’m sorry to say it. I love Leigh Brackett, you all should know that. I’m new to her work but by damn I rank her as one of my favorite writers of all time, ever. But The Ginger Star makes it clear that there was a huge difference between 1950s Brackett and 1970s Brackett. The author of this book comes off like someone desperately trying to mimic that earlier, superior author’s style, and failing miserably. Here’s hoping that the next two books are better.

*Steranko’s cover painting is actually of a barbarian character of his own creation, but the story goes that when Leigh Brackett saw his artwork – probably on the cover of Comixscene #5 (July – August, 1973) – she declared it the greatest representation of Eric John Stark ever, and was able to use it for The Ginger Star. Steranko went on to do the covers for the next two volumes, but as you’ll note Stark looks a bit different on them. Also it’s worth noting that on none of the three covers does Stark have the “sun-blackened skin” Brackett always made a point of mentioning.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Donovan’s Devils #1: The Assassination Is Set For July 4...

Donovans Devils #1: The Assassination Is Set For July 4..., by Lee Parker
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

The cover blurb of this first volume of Donovan’s Devils proclaims it an “action-packed fighting series,” but folks don’t you believe it. Action is sparse, and the novel, a deceptively slim, slow-moving 160 pages, is more concerned with plot and character development, introducing too many characters – and detailing their backgrounds – for such a short book.

According to Hawk’s Author’s Pseudonyms, Donovan’s Devil’s was the work of Robert H. Turner. However Brad Mengel in his Serial Vigilantes credits an author named Larry Powell, who also wrote The Liquidator for Award. I suspect Brad is correct; I’ve never read Powell, and I’m no expert on Turner, but The Assassination Is Set For July 4 doesn’t read like anything I’ve read by him. There’s no spark to this one, and the novel seems to have been written by someone who wasn’t certain what exactly was expected of him. I mean folks I’m not kidding, the “action” doesn’t even start until page 119, when the unwieldy seven-man team choppers into Paraguay to prevent the titular assassination…and even then it’s a while until the fireworks get going.

Judging from this first book, one can see why Donovan’s Devils only lasted three volumes. Hopefully the next two volumes will be quicker-moving, because this first one does the heavy lifting of introducing the members of the team and putting them all together into a unit. But clearly I think there was some confusion about this whole project – the Devils, we gradually learn, all worked together a few years ago in ‘Nam, snatching a Chinese officer from VC forces…and this is the event depicted on the cover! Indeed Powell focuses so much on that ‘Nam mission in copious flashbacks that you wonder why he didn’t just make it the plot of the novel; as it is, the reader feels as if he’s missing some earlier installment.

The action opens in Paraguay, as local terrorist leader El Tigre captures the US ambassador, his expectedly-hot young daughter, and a doctor who unbeknownst to Tigre is actually up for the Nobel, and thus a valuable captive in his own right. El Tigre, accompanied by his former madam-turned terrorist sidekick Maria (who provides the novel’s few sex scenes), sends his demands to America. The President calls in old asskicker Brigadier General Brick Blaine, who oversaw that “impossible mission” in ‘Nam a few years ago in which he put together a group of Army misfits, some of whom were even in jail, and ran the aforementioned Chinese officer mission. So for whatever reason, the President wants this whole El Tigre thing to be handled the same way.

Blaine then calls in his personal asskicker – Captain Jim Donovan, who when we meet him is conjugating (rather non-explicitly) with his fiance. He’s about to get out of the service, but when Blaine’s call comes in Donovan can’t deny his purpose and tells his fiance so long. He and Blaine reconvene in Virginia and begin the laborious, page-consuming task of putting together their team of misfits, which is in no way, shape, or form to be confused with the Dirty Dozen, because there are only eight of them. They are, straight from the back cover:

Humorously, there’s actually another member, one who didn’t make the “back cover cut:” PFC Nathan Carey, cowardly but arrogant, hated by the other men. In particular he and Irwin have a heated rivalry. But this dude has zero skills, other than being able to mimic other voices(!). Why he was included is anyone’s guess, but so far as the plot goes he volunteers for the mission, as he figures whoever saves the captives will become famous. But as you can see, there’s nothing special that unites these guys, and none of their specialties actually factor into the plot, which I’d say is more evidence that Powell really had no idea how to write this book. My assumption is the publisher came up with the series title and perhaps even the character names and specialities, and then hired the wrong ghostwriter to tackle it.

There’s no training involved, as all members are on active duty, so at least that’s one part of the cliché Powell doesn’t dole out; instead, it’s almost casual – the team is introduced one by one, we get somewhat-egregious rundowns on their histories, they’re put together at a base in Virginia, and Blaine and Donovan brief them. The final quarter is where all the action occurs; they chopper into Paraguay and hump it through the thick jungle to the old plantation El Tigre uses for his base. Three of the Devils get injured right off the bat, ambushed at the landing zone by El Tigre’s men. There’s also a crocodile attack as they make their laborious way through the jungle.

The climactic firefight is a bit tepid, unfortunately; Powell isn’t much for violence. This is very much a “get shot and fall down” kind of book, with none of the outrageous gore I demand in my violent pulp fiction. Donovan becomes so concerned with rescuing an undercover agent (a hastily-introduced eleventh hour subplot) that the rescue of the three “main” captives is almost perfunctory, as is the sendoff for El Tigre. But the mission is a success, and the President deems that “Donovan’s Devils” will be needed for more missions – little does he realize that there will only be two more.

And here’s Zwolf’s review.