Thursday, May 6, 2021

Dead End (Kill Squad #4)

Dead End, by Mark Cruz
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

Dan Streib returns as “Mark Cruz” for this fourth volume of Kill Squad (around this time Manor Books dropped the volume numbers from their series, but the Manor ID number at the top right of the cover indicates this one was published after Dead Wrong). He continues with the schtick of previous volumes: removing his titular trio from their San Diego stomping grounds and making them do stuff that falls outside the boundaries of police work. This time they serve as bodyguards for a wealthy Arab as he travels around Europe. 

But really it isn’t even much of a trio this time. Chet Tabor, blond-haired lunk with the scarred face, has always been the main character of Kill Squad, with co-cops Grant Lincoln and Maria Alvarez serving as supporting characters. But while those two have at least had some share of the plot in past, this time they’re really incidental, only there to occasionally trade dialog with Tabor and then disappear into the background again. In fact they’re only along on the Europe trip because Tabor demands that they come along to back him up. Otherwise Tabor is the star of the show, featuring in all the action scenes and calling all the shots. 

There is no continuity in the series, so no pickup from the previous volume nor any other volume. About the only “new” development we have is that Tabor now carries a .44 Auto Mag, meaning Streib must’ve been reading The Executioner. This gun is built up at great expense, used a few times, then lost in England (there is an apparent bitterness toward the British ban on guns – Streib rakes the Brits over the coals throughout the entire England portion of the narrative). Otherwise another change is that Tabor is even more uber-macho this time around, constantly thinking of sex (even during firefights) and planning to “get a woman in bed” no matter what. He also mouths off a lot, gets in people’s faces, and doesn’t listen to othes. It’s as if Streib wanted to go the exact opposite direction of the wussified Terry Bunker he delivered in the first two installments of Chopper Cop

Yet for that matter, we are often told how “afraid” Tabor is. This is so recurrent in Streib’s work that it doesn’t even come off like him adding characterization. Constantly Tabor will be ducking for cover and fighting down panic, then forcing himself to get up and fight back. Or just as often he’ll wonder why he’s even in the line of danger; there’s a part early on where thugs attack people at a park, and Tabor – a cop!! – wonders why he’s even risking his neck to save them, given that they’re all strangers! Of course all this is similar to Terry Bunker’s attitude, with the only difference that Tabor bullies through his fear and gets in a lot more fights, shootouts, and chases. He doesn’t come off as the most likable hero, though. I mean in that part where the thugs open fire at the park, Tabor hides in a gondolla and lets Grant and Maria handle the action, only coming out when they start screaming for his help! 

This opening action scene will be the only sequence in San Diego. Tabor, Grant, and Maria (we’re told only the press has dubbed them “The Kill Squad”) are serving as bodyguards for visiting Arab Ali Saud, an uber-wealthy oil guy who is here with his two daughters and half brothers. Of course the daughters are in their twenties and smokin’ hot; this is the pre-radicalized early ‘70s so the girls are very westernized, going around sans face coverings and wearing revealing clothes. In fact the youngest of them, Zainab, is a definite tease, and went to college in Berkley. Saud is “a billionaire with petrodollars burning holes in his robes,” and the city has rolled out the red carpet for him, hence the personal police protection – and much to the dismay of “stupid chief” Chief Jackson, Tabor and team have gotten the job. 

Turns out there’s a bounty on Saud’s head, and sure enough a group of would-be assassins hit the entourage during an idyllic gondolla ride. Here’s where Tabor hides, of course with the two girls, one of whom falls on him for cover – Tabor enjoying the “soft, full mounds” on his back and taking the opportunity to cop a feel! As I say he is particularly infantile in this one. In fact we’re informed he’s “thirty-one with two marriages behind him.” Tabor’s also a bit of a loser in the hero department. He finally gets out to fight, and one of the attackers takes a little girl hostage. Tabor chases after – again wondering why he’s even bothering to – and takes a darkened stairwell up the tower the attacker has fled, hoping to sneak attack him. But like a dumbass Tabor overlooks the fact that the bright sunlight will hurt his eyes, which have grown used to the dark, thus he’s temporarily blinded…and in the gunfight the little girl is killed. 

Streib has this weird schtick, in just about every book of his I’ve read, where he has a female character getting shot in the face and killed. Usually the eyeball is blown out, too. This happens here, but having it happen to a five year-old girl is a bit too much, I’d say. Chief Jackson yells at Tabor good and proper, and even Maria and Lincoln are upset he didn’t try harder to save the kid. When it turns out that Ali Saud wants Tabor to accompany him on the Europe – he was impressed with Tabor’s ass-kicking, we’re told – Tabor says the little girl’s memory will fuel him, as he wants to nail the bastard who hired those thugs. Ie, the person who hired them was responsible for the little girl’s death. As with the previous volumes, Chief Jackson is just happy that his three most problematic officers will be out of his hair for a few weeks. 

Also fueling Tabor is the opportunity to get in the pants of either or both of Saud’s daughters. Zainab is the saucy younger one and Hayat is the slightly more conservative older one. A running subplot is that Saud intends to take his daughters back to Saudi Arabia after this Europe-America jaunt and return them to “the old ways.” In particular he feels that Zainab is “disturbed,” her brain rotted by American decadence. There’s actually more meat here than you’d encounter in a book of today that might cover the same topics; I imagine most American authors of today would be afraid of being branded Islamophobic. But Tabor has no problem with chastising Saud that Muslim men “keep their women as virtual slaves,” and he also doles out such impossible-today gems as “You didn’t learn that behind a veil,” when Zainab gives him a sultry kiss. 

For Zainab, we learn, is the one who really hired Tabor – she wants a piece of that uber-macho hunk. When Tabor learns this he takes umbrage; he’s no “hired stud.” Indeed he goes out of his way to talk down to Zainab…and when she goes off in a huff he wonders if he should wake up Maria for some quick sex, given how turned on he is! (For those taking notes, Tabor and Maria are a nonevent this time; she really does nothing more than deliver a few lines and shoot a few people, more on which anon.) Tabor’s muleheadedness is especially hard to understand, given how determined he is to get either of the girls in bed; there’s a later part where Zainab comes to him again, this time in lingerie, and an angry Tabor gives her a paddling! “Here’s what I think of Women’s Rights,” he tells her before bending her over his knee, casting doubt on his entire anti-Muslim tirade. The funniest bit here is Tabor’s shock to discover that Zainab isn’t nearly as turned on by the paddling as he is! In fact she screams and fights him so crazily that she wakes up the entire hotel. 

Streib is fond of female villains – I think every book of his I’ve read has featured one – and Zainab’s anger at being forcibly returned to “the old ways” should set off alarms. Instead Tabor constantly rebuffs her…while he meanwhile wonders how he can get her in bed on his terms. Or better yet her sister, whom we’re told Tabor finds hotter. Meanwhile we get some of the England-bashing I mentioned above. Streib has practically every British character quake in fear at the sight of Tabor’s gun; even some guys from Scotland Yard come by and say that, if he were to use one of those guns, the full weight of the law would hit him. Of course he has to use it, most memorably in a long-running action sequence in Stonehenge, where more would-be assassins come after Saud’s party. 

During this battle Tabor learns that an infamous contract killer named Purcelli is behind all the attempted hits on Saud; this will be a character Streib doesn’t much build up. Streib attempts to develop tension later when the entourage is leaving the hotel and Tabor suspects Purcelli is going to spring an attack. This part sees more wussified Brits panicking as the action goes down, particularly when a bomb goes off on the premises. This part also has an unexpected outcome in that a character in the entourage is suprisingly killed off. The bigger outcome so far as Tabor is concerned is that he loses his Auto Mag, having to hand it over to the authorities. Unbelievably Saud continues on his European journey, despite his personal losses; turns out it’s really a business trip, as Saud is meeting in private with oil contacts at these locations, to talk away from spies. 

The action moves to Monaco, where Tabor finally has his way with Zainab…or, “entering that dark and welcoming place,” as Streib puts it in a fairly non-explicit sequence. After which the two go on a boat ride, where Purcelli tries to take out Tabor; an action scene that just keeps to go on and on, and ends with the infamous assassin again running off. This part sees another character outed as a villain – the reveal isn’t much of a surprise – and as Tabor struggles with her for control of a gun he grabs “the tender V between her legs” in a brutal move. This takes us into the climactic action scene, as Tabor races against time to stop Purcelli from killing Saud in a villa. 

Streib isn’t done killing kids, though; one of Purcelli’s men, we’re informed, is a “young boy” who comes at Tabor with a gun, and Tabor almost casually blows him away…only to later discover that the kid was merely holding a target pistol! This revelation doesn’t seem to faze our hero in the least. But then he and his comrades are particularly brutal in this finale; there’s a part where Maria “carefully” shoots another of Purcelli’s goons in the crotch, and if I had a fancy doctorate in literature I’d suggest that this might be due to residual hatred she has for all men, given her gang-rape in the first volume

The finale seems to come out of a Hollywood blockbuster, with Tabor and two of the villains on a runaway train. It occurs to me that Streib has a firm template for Kill Squad, as each volume features the trio outside of San Diego and each ends with Tabor recovering in the hospital, with Chief Jackson paying him a visit. So happens here, with Jackson again telling Tabor to take an extended vacation to stay out of his hair. Otherwise Dead End didn’t hit the lurid heights of the first volume, but it was definitely more entertaining than the third volume, which mostly featured Tabor and Lincoln sitting on an airplane. One more volume was to follow.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Peacemaker #3: The Xander Pursuit

The Peacemaker #3: The Xander Pursuit, by Adam Hamilton
October, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

The lackluster Peacemaker series continues with a third volume that once again is courtesy an author who does not understand the genre nor what is expected of it. If the previous two volumes were tepid non-events, The Xander Pursuit is even worse…192 small-print pages of tedium, only livened up by the incident depicted on the cover (once again courtesy Mel Crair); an incident that doesn’t even occur until the final few pages! 

It occurred to me as I read The Xander Pursuit that it provided an answer to that whole “name one thing a man can do that a woman can’t do” argument feminists love to dole out. Well I’ll tell you folks, here’s one thing women can’t do: write men’s adventure novels. The fact that there were so few female authors in the field should be clue enough; Marilyn Granbeck, who wrote The Peacemaker as “Adam Hamilton” and Blood as “Allan Morgan,” was one of those very few. And judging from her work on the two series, she was incapable of delivering on the lurid and violent demands of the genre. To be sure, her writing is fine, she’s just the wrong author for the genre, her style more suited to cozy mysteries…which is the genre she eventually worked in. 

The series premise itself doesn’t work. I mean for one it’s titled “The Peacemaker.” But even that wouldn’t be too much of a kiss of death. The major issue is that the hero, Barrington “Barry” Hewes-Bradford, is so wealthy that he employs legions of employees who do all the “action stuff” for him. As I’ve mentioned several times in the previous reviews, all he really does is just use the phone for the most part, putting in calls to various underlings or contacts to go out and do the work for him. This is so far removed from the action-centric nature of the men’s adventure genre as to be laughable. I mean there’s a part in the end where Barry’s latest girlfriend is taken captive, and even here all the guy does is make a call…and then goes to bed!! 

Over and over again Granbeck makes it clear that she has no understanding of what this genre needs. She piles on one-off characters, elaborately introduced, most of them doing all the heavy lifting, while her main character sits around in various opulent hotel rooms, smokes cigarettes, and goes “Hmmm.” This has the cumulative effect that The Xander Pursuit is a slog of a read. It’s much more of a mystery than a men’s adventure novel; for example, a minor character is killed in the opening pages, and a hundred pages later the reasons behind his murder are still being investigated! There’s absolutely no action, particularly for Barry; he gets in a car chase midway through, but other than the finale he sees no other action or danger. And he kills no one in the course of the novel. 

So here’s the plot: Barry is about to head off to Tarrago, an island kingdom in the Caribbean. He visited it as a boy, we’re told, and so loved the place that he’s been investing in it over the past few years, trying to help bring it into the modern era. In this regard President Aquino of Tarrago has erected several casinos, hoping to attract the luxury vacation market – something that much displeases Gabriel Lavorel, despotic ruler of San Sebastien, rival country which is on the same island as Tarrago. This brings to mind a trashy beach read of the era with the same sort of setup, Island Paradise, and initially Granbeck seems to be going in this direction, with description of Tarrago’s verdant countryside and mention of its various luxury hotels, but this is dropped. 

On the eve of leaving Barry receives a mysterious call with hot info about something happening in Tarrago. For once Barry handles this himself, going off to meet the caller at midnight. Even here though Barry is accompanied by a bodyguard: series regular Lobo, a former pro footballer who again comes off more like the hero of an action series than Barry himself does. Throughout the course of the book Lobo will be Barry’s yes-man, though, always with him and helping him suss out various mysteries. There’s also recurring character Trask, another of Barry’s crutches; Trask heads up security for Barry’s enterprise and once again serves him up with info, sending out various agents into the field to do the sort of thing an action series hero should be doing himself. 

Well the mysterious caller’s murdered before Barry and Lobo get to the meet, as are a few other people Barry was supposed to meet in Tarrago. The mystery behind their murders – indeed, whether they were even murdered, given that some of the kills were staged as natural occurrences – will play out through the seemingly-endless narrative. All Barry knows is something about “Xander” is involved, but he suspects Xander is a thing and not a person. He flies off to Tarrago and meets up with various people, making incessant calls to Trask and others to have agents sent out into the field to investigate for him. Our hero instead broods in his hotel (he’s got an entire floor to himself), smokes a lot, fields Lobo with endless questions, and doesn’t do much else. 

Granbeck does at least cater to one genre mainstay: a stunning female for our hero. But even here she doesn’t fully invest in it. This is how the female character is introduced: 

Barry was barely conscious of the continued introductions as he stared at the woman. For a moment his breath caught in his chest like a hot spark. The resemblance of the girl to Stephanie Haig was startling, at least at first. The soft, golden mist of hair around the small oval face, the green eyes that reflected light as though from some deep pool. 

And this comrades will be it for the description of the girl, whose name turns out to be Karel; even later, when the expected hanky-panky occurs, there is zero exploitation and zero mention of any anatomical details. The scant references to Karel all have to do with her similarity to Barry’s former love Stephanie, who “disappeared in the Amazon eight years ago.” Even someone completely new to the lurid world of men’s adventure would suspect there was something amiss about “Adam Hamilton.” 

Just for fun, let’s take a look at how a typically-horny male pulp writer might’ve handled the above:

Barry was barely conscious of the continued introductions as he stared at the blonde. For a moment his breath caught in his chest like a hot spark. Her breasts were so full and widely separated that their outer curves hid part of her upper arms. The nipples, plainly visible beneath the gauzy fabric of her revealing top, jutted forward proudly, almost defiantly, as if demanding attention. The girl smiled invitingly at Barry as she fixed him with her slut-green eyes. 

You won’t find anything like that in The Xander Pursuit. Even when Barry and Karel get down to it, many pages later, it’s basically rated G: 

[Barry] watched her undress as he removed his own clothes. She was incredibly beautiful, her tanned skin showing patches of white where a bikini had covered it when she sunbathed. 

Then they were on the bed, coming together in heat and need, searching each other and finding the hidden promises. The cool exterior Barry had glimpsed in the clinic was gone and a warm loving woman emerged. The passion that had begun with that first kiss on the beach came to a full flame, and their bodies met, gently at first then abandoning all hesitancy. They met and climbed the peaks together. In some deep part of his mind, Barry knew that Karel was finding the same kind of wonderful pleasure and relief as he. It was a long time before they were still. 

Hot stuff, huh!! Notice there’s still no exploitation. It’s about as chaste as a supposed “sex scene” can be. 

I’d quote some action scenes, but there aren’t any! Trask sends in two field agents, Radley and Underhill, who trek around Tarrago and do all the “action hero stuff” as they try to find out what’s going on with this whole “Xander” thing. Meanwhile Barry “swims a quick twenty laps” in the hotel pool and has some off-page sex with Karel. He also flies around on his private Lear jet, meeting with President Aquino and even Lavorel in San Sebastien; in all these scenes Granbeck piles on hordes of minor characters, ensuring that the reader will grow increasingly confused and bored. What’s worse is that so much of it is needless padding; Barry’s trip to San Sebastien is heavily built up, but over and done with in a few pages, Lavorel refusing to meet him. It’s like that again and again; any opportunity for action or excitement is quickly cast aside. 

Humorously the back cover ruins the mystery Granbeck spends the entire novel building; we’re told that “organized crime” threatens the economy of Tarrago. Well, this isn’t even revealed until near the very end. But Barry does meet an American here on business named Diego deLucca. Gee, I wonder if he’ll turn out to be Mafia? But it just goes on and on, with another “action highlight” a part where they’re having dinner on deLucca’s yacht and San Sebastien cannons open fire on the ship. But again Barry doesn’t see any action himself, everything handled by the crew. Ultimately he learns that “Xander” is a complicated plot to rob Tarrago’s gold coffers, a plot involving organized crime, and this takes us into the finale. 

As mentioned, Karel happens to get abducted here, though it’s so coincidental as to be ridiculous; some stooges heist a casino and grab her as collateral on the way out. She’s smuggled onto a boat and taken out to sea with the loot. When Barry learns of this he makes a few calls, figures he knows where the ship is headed, calls someone else to have a .50 caliber installed on his jet…and then goes to bed! Even Lobo is shocked at this, but Barry says “there’s nothing else” he can do at the moment. Yes, all this really happens. They wait till next morning, and Barry flies the plane over the ship (which is where he figured it would be) while some other guy handles the .50. Barry doesn’t even kill anyone, having the guy blast the ship to pieces after ensuring the occupants have escaped via lifeboat. 

And mercifully here The Xander Pursuit comes to a close. Granbeck tries to build this image that Barry might be more cruel than expected; when informed that Karel is onboard the ship he’s about to blast out of the water, Barry says he’s going to blast away regardless. At novel’s end he is questioned on this, and says he was only “bluffing.” But we’re to understand that his audience is unsure whether Barry is telling the truth. Honestly though at this point I couldn’t have cared less. This one was really dispirited and padded to the extreme, and speaking of mysteries, there’s no mystery why there was only one more volume of The Peacemaker.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Fleetwood Mac: The Authorized History

Fleetwood Mac: The Authorized History, by Samuel Graham
November, 1978  Warner Books

Every few years I go through a Fleetwood Mac phase, in particular the “forgotten” early ‘70s albums. Everyone knows the Buckingham-Nicks era of Rumours and whatnot, but while I appreciate that era I often find it takes on the level of background music when I’m playing it. What I’m saying is, it doesn’t draw me in like the earlier stuff does. But then the Buckingham-Nicks era is “Fleetwood Mac” to most people, and Samuel Graham’s authorized biography of the band devotes half its contents to this most famous lineup. 

First of all, Fleetwood Mac isn’t a quickie cash-in, despite its brevity and the fact that it was published as a paperback original. It’s also not written for a juvenile audience, with plenty of adult language throughout, usually courtesy the interview subjects. It was however clearly published so as to capitalize on the sudden fame of the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation of the group, though Graham mentions that he’d seen Fleetwood Mac on tour in the US prior to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup. Otherwise Graham’s writing is good, and he seems to have had a rock journalism background. He relays the story succinctly, usually sticking to quotes from band members past and present and occasionally serving up his own opinions on things. 

The book is chock full of black and white photos, and more importantly the majority of Fleetwood Mac members from inception through 1977 all take part – save for notable exceptions Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. But even group founder Peter Green graces the book with his own thoughts and reflections, though to be sure the “authorized” bit means that Fleetwood Mac isn’t going to get into all the lurid details. There’s no mention, for example, of the Satanic German commune that supposedly brainwashed an LSD-dosed Green in 1969, forcing him to quit the band (a story that’s more legend than truth). Nor is there much dwelling on the famous break-ups and shack-ups of the Rumours era. Also no mention that gifted young guitarist Danny Kirwan was homeless at the time of this book’s publication; the last line of the book vaguely has it that he is “keeping a low profile.” 

The first page humorously informs us that Fleetwood Mac “took ten years to find their sound,” but really there was no searching involved. Each lineup was basically its own separate group, with only the rhythm section of John McVie (bass) and Mick Fleetwood (drums) staying consistent. Graham begins at the beginning, with gifted guitarist Peter Green splitting off from John Mayall’s group and, along with Jeremy Spencer and McVie and Fleetwood, starting up a new group. I’ll admit I’m even less interested in Fleetwood Mac’s early “blues” years than I am the later Buckingham-Nicks years, but honestly Graham doesn’t really spend much time here – he is aware that the majority of his audience wants to read about more recent Mac output. 

At any rate “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” was the version of the band for many years; even when the group carried on with various lineups in the ‘70s there seemed to be little interest in Britain. Whereas it was the opposite here in America; Fleetwood Mac started getting more radio airplay on FM stations as the ‘70s went on, to the point that Fleetwood Mac almost became an “American,” or at least “Los Angeles” band…which of course had the ultimate outcome of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joining, and taking the group firmly into a sort of LA soft rock direction. Regardless Green’s original incarnation drew in a string of hits in the UK and Europe, with no less than the Beatles paying tribue to them in “Sun King,” which takes its guitar sound from the Mac single “Albatross.” (Something Graham doesn’t mention in the book.) 

I get more interested in Green’s original incarnation of the group when they begin to shuck the blues and go more for a rock vibe, particularly a heavy rock vibe – “Oh Well” and “The Green Manalishi” are two of the greatest tracks in all of late ‘60s rock. The latter, certainly the heaviest Fleetwood Mac ever got, is nearly proto-metal in its execution, and it’s my favorite Fleetwood Mac song of all. Graham notes that it was inspired by a dream Green had (in later interviews Geen detailed that it was a green dog barking at him, and also that Green himself was “dead” in the dream), and these days its seen as his subconscious driving him to quit the band, given his “hang-ups” over money. Graham does dwell on this – the book is pretty disarming at times for an officially authorized venture – with McVie and Fleetwood nauseated by Green’s fixation on how “wrong” it was that the band was making money while others starved. 

“Manalishi was primeval in its force, driven by Fleetwood’s relentless drumming and Green’s power-chording and laced with eerie guitar solos,” Graham notes, in what will be his typical style of describing a song in a few lines. Given its brevity (173 pages, much of which is taken up by photos), Fleetwood Mac is not an in-depth study of the group’s musical output. For the most part Graham will deliver a few pithy lines, often letting his opinion be known. However when he does detail a song, even if briefly, he shows a definite skill for capturing the essence of the track…even if I don’t always agree with his opinions. I also appreciate that he isn’t so hung up on the lyrics, as most other vintage rock critics are. 

As mentioned, one person not present for the recollections is guitarist Jeremy Spencer; Graham states that Spencer was usually only present in the studio when it was one of his own tracks being recorded. Spencer was able to take over the group when Green quit in early 1970, resulting in the somewhat jumbled Kiln House, which veers from Elvis and Buddy Holly parody to very cool late ‘60s blues rock…the latter courtesy new member Danny Kirwan. A guitar prodigy (and protegee of Green’s), Kirwan is one of the more myterious elements of early Mac. By all accounts he was difficult to work with and difficult to know. Like Green it would turn out he had some mental issues which got in the way of his music career. Kirwan joined in ’69 at age 19, played most of the guitar on that year’s Then Play On, and per Graham “the genuinely creative moments” on Kiln House belonged to him, with the young guitarist “coming into his own.” 

Spencer’s absence from the book means that his own parting from the group is relayed by the other members – basically, while on tour in America, Spencer was accosted by a group of Christian cultists in Los Angeles and just decided to go join them in their commune, leaving Fleetwood Mac in the cold. This would be the Children of God cult, and if I’m not mistaken this was the same cult that River Phoenix’s family joined at the same time. It was probably also in the same area, so perhaps young River was one of the kids running around the commune when Spencer joined…though from Phoenix’s comments it wasn’t a nice place at all; his stories of children being forced into sexual relations in the commune was pretty chilling. In fact I believe he was making the connotation that there was no difference between how the commune treated children and how Hollywood did. 

Anyway none of this is actually in the book. And again, Spencer isn’t present to yield his own story. Graham does comment, in the “where are they now” finale of the book, that Spencer is “suprisingly” still with the cult, also noting that he released an album with them. Something else Graham doesn’t note is that, around this time, Fleetwood Mac released one of the greatest B-sides in rock. Another Kirwan number, this was “The Purple Dancer,” which was the B-side of the moody instrumental “Dragonfly.” Both songs were recorded during the Kiln House sessions but were not on the actual album; “The Purple Dancer” is notable for featuring the entire lineup, including both Kirwan and Spencer on vocals. A definite rockin’ track and, like “The Green Manalishi,” another indication of a direction the group could’ve gone. However “The Purple Dancer” was basically forgotten, and if I’m not mistaken it still hasn’t been released on CD…and the only long-play record it was released on was a 1972 Germany/Holland-only compilation titled The Best Of Fleetwood Mac

With Spencer gone, now 21 year-old Danny Kirwan took up the reigns of the group. Along with another new member, Christine McVie (nee Perfect), who had recently married John. She’d contributed some keys to Kiln House, and also handled the incredible cover art (definitely the best Fleetwood Mac album cover of all), but now she was an official member of the group. Also joining at this time was American guitarist Bob Welch, my favorite-ever member of Fleetwood Mac, though curiously I’m not so much into his solo work. (I do however love the first Paris album he did immediately after leaving Mac.) Together this lineup released what I consider not only the best Fleetwood Mac album, but one of the most unsung progressive rock albums of the early ‘70s: Future Games

While this album is often dismissed (or more often just ignored), Graham thankfully is appreciative of it, but doesn’t get into too much detail. He relates the interesting story of how Welch joined the group – basically he just hung out with them one night, hit it off with them, and “didn’t play a note,” per his own recollection. Welch as ever comes off as the most well-spoken of the group, and his comments throughout the book are always insightful. I love the spaced-out vibe the guy brought Fleetwood Mac, as well as the murky progressive direction he took it in. This was very apparent in his first song for Mac, “Future Games,” which Graham calls “a treat.” Graham also calls Kirwan’s “Sands of Time” a “brilliant” number, however Graham never rolls out the “progressive” description. Likely because by the time this book was published, progressive was “prog rock” and would give the wrong impression to readers. But Future Games is certainly “progressive rock,” and if you’re bored you can check out my review of it here

Somehow this lineup managed to record another album, the following year’s Bare Trees (1972). I agree with Graham again, who considers this one “not nearly as rewarding as its three predecessors.” Bare Trees is I think stronger than Kiln House, but it comes off as directionless after the single-minded mellow cosmic effort Future Games. This album is of course notable for having the original and superior version of Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady.” If you’re still bored you can check out my review of Bare Trees here

As mentioned the book doesn’t gloss over everything, so we’re told in flat terms that Kirwan got increasingly “weird” (Welch’s description) as time went on, culminating in various freakouts and hissy-fits while on tour. But one thing is glossed over: I’ve read that the incident that got Kirwan fired was the night he refused to go on stage, freaked out and tried to attack Welch, smashing his guitar in the process. This incident is not related in Fleetwood Mac. Instead we’re told, again by Welch, of one night where Kirwan refused to go on, “stood by the mixing board” throughout the show, and then complimented everyone on their performance when they came off the stage! At any rate Kirwan is “politely fired” and Graham informs us of his two solo albums, neither of which were released in the US – and neither of which, Graham states, reach the heights of his Fleetwood Mac material. 

We come now to the most forgotten Fleetwood Mac lineup of all: the strange conglomerate that released Penguin in 1973. “A really weird, out in the ozone kind of album,” Christine McVie describes it; Welch just calls it “obscure,” and presumably his comment was given in 1978. If Penguin was obscure then it’s even more so now. This was the lineup that included new lead guitarist Bob Weston and new “lead singer” Dave Walker…who only sang on two songs on the album! Walker was from Mac touring mates Savoy Brown, and, as related in the book, he was brought onboard to give the group some much-needed stage presence, something we’re informed they’d been missing since Green left. But it was clear from the get-go that Walker, with his bluesy wailing, was a poor fit, and his two contributions to Penguin, one a bluesy number and the other a country-rock thing, aren’t very memorable. 

Speaking of Green, Graham relates that he returned to the fold for one number, providing uncredited guitar to Welch’s spooky progressive number “Night Watch,” the definite highlight of the album. Actually Welch’s numbers are the saving grace of Penguin, all of them going into a sort of progressive rock territory. McVie meanwhile continued to develop the sort of soft rock vibe she’d perfect in the Buckingham-Nicks era. As for new lead guitarist Bob Weston, pretty much the only thing he’s remembered for is having an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife, something which occurred during the tour for their following album, also released in 1973: Mystery To Me

As if quickly released to make people forget about Penguin, this one dropped Walker and featured what I consider one of the greatest Fleetwood Mac songs of all: Bob Welch’s “Hypnotized.” “The song’s ambience so embodied its title that it nearly had an aura to it, soothing the listener into a groove that one wanted to last forever,” Graham writes, further stating that in his opinion it is “the most brilliant music, period, that Welch has ever made.” He also claims that, judging from the poetic quality and topics of his lyrics, “Welch had the most far-reaching intellectual curiosity of any Fleetwood writer before or since.” But the Mystery To Me material is run through in two pages, climaxing with the American tour in which Fleetwood discovered he was being “cuckholded.” This led to Weston’s immediate firing and the cancellation of the tour, the group returning to England with the future in doubt. 

Graham also briefly details the legal squabblings that resulted in “The New Fleetwood Mac” which toured the US in ’74; this was a group put together by Mac’s manager, supposedly “to keep the band’s name alive.” This led to lots of lawsuits, some of which were still being worked out when this book was published. We get the band’s point of view on this, all of them still upset about the issue. Graham doesn’t tell us much about the “Fake Fleetwood Mac,” like the fact that they later released a couple albums under the name Stretch, starting with 1975’s Elastique. This isn’t even included in the otherwise comprehensive discography at the back of the book. 

The real Fleetwood Mac went on to release another album with yet another lineup: 1974’s Heroes Are Hard To Find, which saw the group whittled down to Welch, the McVies, and Fleetwood. “Not a bad record by any means,” Graham states, but I personally like it a lot, and rank it just after Future Games. There’s a sort of psychedelic vibe to the whole album, again courtesy Bob Welch; “Coming Home” could almost be Pink Floyd. It’s a shame this lineup didn’t stick together longer, but Welch decided to leave, exhausted from the past three years: “Faced with the prospect of making another Fleetwood record, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” he states. One thing not recorded here is that Welch wanted to take Fleetwood Mac into heavier territory – something he did himself with the power trio Paris. For some confounding reason Graham states that the Paris material was “commercialism…too often mired in pretension.” That first Paris album is a proto-metal psychedelic heavy rock masterpiece, there’s nothing commercial about it at all! 

So all of the above, from the origins of the group in ‘67 to Welch leaving in late 1974 – several albums and several lineups – takes up the first 115 pages of the book. The rest is devoted to the Buckingham-Nicks lineup and the two albums they’d released in that time. So clearly Graham was aware of what his audience at the time would be most interested in. But here is where my own interest began to wane. While I appreciate the Buckingham-Nicks-McVie lineup, I just don’t actively listen to it…I mean I even tried to play Rumours recently, and it quickly became just background music. And also it amuses me that Graham can call Welch’s Paris material “commercialism,” but rave about Rumours! 

The story is recounted here, same as it would be in the later Goodnight, L.A.: Mick Fleetwood, looking for a new Los Angeles recording studio after Welch left the group, heard “Frozen Love” from the then-obscure Buckingham-Nicks album, which had been recorded at this studio, and he immediately declared that he wanted Buckhingham and Nicks to join the group. Graham does not relate that Nicks was supposedly Buckingham’s “plus one;” he does relate that, at the time of the book’s publication, Stevie Nicks was so popular that she was seen as the face of Fleetwood Mac to most people…an image which she tries to shed in her interviews here, claiming she’s just a “member of the band.” Graham also enthuses over Nicks’s productivity in the writing department. 

One thing you won’t find mentioned is the oft-told tales of cocaine excess; drugs aren’t much mentioned (other than Green’s forays into LSD in the ‘60s), thus we aren’t told about the communal bowl of coke that sat on the mixing console during the recording of Rumours. Instead the focus is more on how Buckingham and Nicks so quickly became part of the group, and indeed their version is “Fleetwood Mac” in the minds of most. What makes this interesting is that Graham closes the book wondering how long this lineup will last! Given of course the incredible amount of lineup changes the band went through between 1970 and 1974, it’s no surprise he would wonder if this latest lineup would also be short-lived. 

Welch, astute as ever, comments on why he feels the Buckingham-Nicks lineup found so much success, when compared to the earlier lineups: “When I was with Fleetwood I felt above the audience, as if I knew something they didn’t know. If they feel that vibe coming from you, they get hesitant. What people want to see in a big commercial success is a reflection of what they themselves could be, a nicer, prettier version of themselves. When I was in the band we were distant, and people weren’t comfortable. Now they are.” Actually this all is a bit of a left-hand compliment now that I think of it – but I do agree that the Welch incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was a little too advanced for the mainstream, whereas the Buckingham-Nicks incarnation pretty much defined the sound of mainstream late ‘70s rock. 

Speaking of Welch, I appreciated how Graham would detail what happened to members after they left. Peter Green shows up periodically, with Graham documenting how he was even institutionalized at one point – again, it is at times a “warts and all” sort of book, with not much really hidden. And of course Welch had his biggest solo hit with a remake of “Sentimental Lady,” with his former bandmates backing him up. Curiously though Welch must’ve had a falling out with the group, as he was the sole member to not be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – hell, even Kirwan was! But this book was published long before the relationship between Welch and Fleetwood Mac grew strained. It’s made clear in the book, in fact, that Welch basically kept the group running for a long time, something Christine McVie herself states. 

For those into the Buckingham-Nicks era, you won’t really find much trivia here. The tale of them joining is recounted, and rundowns of their solo album as well as 1975’s Fleetwood Mac and the just-released Rumours. Buckingham doesn’t have much to say, but Nicks is quoted several times, even admitting that she didn’t know much at all about Fleetwood Mac prior to joining, though she says she did see Christine McVie on TV once and was inspired by her. Otherwise, I was much less interested in this closing section than the earlier stuff. 

Fleetwood Mac goes for a pretty penny these days, so it’s definitely a collector’s item. I was lucky to get a copy via Interlibrary Loan. It’s pretty good for what it is – a brief but insightful look into the group and the various permutations it went through on the path to superstardom. But anyone expecting probing analysis of the music or sordid tales of excess will be disappointed.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Dakota #3: Cat Trap

Dakota #3: Cat Trap, by Gilbert Ralston
September, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Conventional plotting and characterizations take precedence over the action and sleaze factors, which barely exist. -- Marty McKee

I think one thing we can all agree on though is that the Dakota series is graced with some of the finer covers in the men’s adventure genre. This one, with its lysergic green cat statuette, is especially nice. The artwork is signed, but I can’t make out the signature. There seems to be an “S” and a “V” in there. I was wondering if it was either John or Marie Severin, but I’m not familiar enough with their art or signature styles to say. Anyway, it’s too bad Pinncale didn’t credit the artist on the copyright page. 

I have been somewhat looking forward to this volume of the series if only to get some clarity on the plot and its similarity to a standalone novel Gilbert Ralston published through Pinnacle at this time: The Deadly, Deadly Art, which came out in November of ’74. Both it and Cat Trap feature an assassin who worships ancient Egyptian feline god Bastet. It seems very strange that an author would devote two books to the same thing in such a short span of time. It turns out though that the whole Bastet thing factors much more heavily into The Deadly, Deadly Art than it does in Cat Trap, so perhaps Ralston didn’t feel he had explored the concept sufficiently here and thus decided to devote another novel to it. Because Marty was right on the money in his review when he commented that Cat Trap suffers from “a waste of a potentially memorable villain.” 

What’s very curious is that the plots for Cat Trap and The Deadly, Deadly Art are practically identical: a Bastet-worshipping hit man takes out his victims with a special poison that mimics heart attacks. Only a telltale red dot on the victim’s back is evidence of the poison injection. But the killer is given more narrative space in The Deadly, Deadly Art, and the whole Bastet worship thing is more elaborated upon. In Cat Trap it comes off as an afterthought, introduced as a compelling subplot but ultimately dropped and not really explained. Even more curious is that there was potential to make Cat Trap a sequel to The Deadly, Deadly Art, as the Bastet worshipper Dakota goes up against is almost a clone of the villain in the other book. 

Marty in his review also notes that Dakota “has a very large supporting cast,” and that’s once again made clear within the first few pages of Cat Trap (how much you wanna bet Ralston had a different title in mind – another word for “Cat?”). As with the previous books in the series it’s clear Ralston wants to write a sort of family epic; he seems much more interested in the various supporting characters and their interactions than the action and whatnot the men’s adventure genre demands. Whereas the previous volume at least had a memorable sort of climax, this one’s comes off as perfunctory…and the few other action scenes throughout are over and done with in the blink of an eye. Well anyway, pages 2 through 4 are a nightmare of info-dumping, Ralston telling us the names of all the various people involved with Dakota near his family ranch in Carson Valley, Nevada, even up to and including “Caruso, Dakota’s pet raven.” And the damn bird isn’t even mentioned again. 

Indeed, Dakota’s personal entourage has gotten even more unwieldy. His father died at the end of the previous book, so now he lives with his mom, former local cop Bennedetti (plus Bennedetti’s wife and kids), young punk Louis Threetrees, and ‘Nam pal Joe Redbear, who figured in the memorable action climax of the previous book. In addition Dakota has a girlfriend named Alicia, introduced in the previous book and appearing again this time – Dakota’s such a “different” sort of men’s adventure hero that he even proposes to Alicia in the course of Cat Trap (she tells him “Not yet”), and hell there’s a part where he takes some other woman out on a date, just to get some info from her, and then drops her off back at her home so he can head back to his hotel and brood. And now that I think of it, there’s another part where Dakota stumbles onto a porn shoot, and the “actress” basically propositions him, and Dakota replies that he’d rather screw “a water buffalo.” 

Ralston piles on one-off characters and subplots in the first few chapters, making for a demanding read. What it boils down to is that two seemingly-unrelated men die of a heart attack on the same day in Reno, and Dakota is hired to look into it. In one subplot it’s an old ‘Nam commander who wants to find his son, and in another it’s a gambling casino that hires Dakota to find out what happened to one of its executives. But again all of this is very similar to The Deadly, Deadly Art, to the point that it’s humorous Ralston was able to sell Pinnacle practically the same book twice in the same year. I guess you could argue that Cat Trap has more action, comparatively speaking, but then again as mentioned as least The Deadly, Deadly Art had a better-developed villain. 

But in this book the villain is almost an afterthought. One of the heart attack victims died on a crowded street, and a witness overheard someone mutter something like “Bastet;” gradually (very gradually) Dakota will learn the whole connection with the ancient god. But as with the other book, ultimately we have here a professional assassin who pledges his kills to Bastet and uses a curare-tipped rapier to do his assassinating. As Marty notes, though, the villain is left so much in the background that he only appears twice, and the potential is not reaped in the least. Instead Dakota tassles with a couple low-level thugs over the plodding course of the novel. 

But Dakota is a private eye, and that’s really the vibe Ralston goes for…that is when he isn’t focused on the family and friends dynamics. Dakota flies around the country a good deal this time, meeting a host of characters who spout memorable dialog…which is another bone of contention I have with the series. Every single character delivers annoyingly glib dialog; Ralston had a Hollwyood background, which is very clear. But it’s too much of a good thing. I mean if one or two characters had some nice snappy dialog that would be fine. But when every character talks like they’re mugging for the camera it gets to be annoying – like for example the phrase “To hear is to obey,” which is uttered by two separate characters in the course of the book. Dakota himself continues to dole out the glib rejoinders; my favorite in that regard is when a hippie girl asks him if he’s an Indian and Dakota responds, “You want to see my tomahawk?”

Really though Dakota spends most of his time calling colleagues and flying to meet them to research on the ground. Here’s where that “sequel” potential is. One of Dakota’s contacts is a former New York cop named Cochran, who now works in San Francicso. He is familiar with a case in New York from a few years back where random people were dying of heart attacks, and it turned out to be the work of a professional killer named Guy Boyle Marten…who just happened to be a highfalutin snobbish type who worshipped Bastet. Yes, exactly like the art professor-professional killer who worshipped Bastet in The Deadly, Deadly Art…a novel which featured a New York cop as its hero. Man, all Ralston had to do was make that New York cop, Mack Bennett, the character Dakota works with in Cat Trap

It even works with the Marten connection; The Deadly, Deadly Art climaxes with what appears to be a random act of fate taking care of the villain, Brian Sattler…and we learn here that Guy Marten too is supposedly dead, victim of a random house fire. Marten even works for a sort of hitman staffing agency, same as Sattler did. And guess what – both Marten and Sattler live in Connecticut, where they work as teachers. It would seem clear then that these are the same characters, but Ralston never makes the connection. All he had to do was replace Cochran with Mack Bennet, and Marten with Sattler, and he would’ve had a fine sequel to The Deadly, Deadly Art. Of course that book was published two months after this one, but such things are a regular occurrence in the world of paperback originals. 

Well anyway, Dakota ventures to San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut in the course of his investigation, finding the opportunity to hook up with Alicia again in SanFran. There’s zero hanky-pankery this time; more focus is placed on Alicia’s lingerie store being ransacked with “chemicals,” a note left on the scene for Dakota to “go home.” Dakota instead sends Alicia back to the ranch in New Mexico and continues his investigation, getting in a couple scrapes. There’s a humorous amount of “kicking” this time; both Dakota and the one-off thugs are prone to launching high kicks to the head, as if inspired by Black Belt Theater or something. But this isn’t an action-heavy series by any means. I mean honestly Dakota is at one point hooked up with a pistol…and he never uses it, instead giving it back to his contact and telling him to hang on to it. 

Ralston’s writing is fine; I mean he’s clearly invested in the characters and has a gift for dialog. But he seems to be writing more of a James Michener sort of novel than about “a modern Indian lawman in today’s West.” Also the glibness extends to the narrative. There are so many short, direct sentences that at times it takes on the vibe of a hardboiled parody. But in his focus upon characters and introspection Ralston overlooks the more racy demands of this genre. I mean even Jon Messmann stories move, despite the inordinate introspection and philosophising. 

This is especially clear in the climax. After shuttling around the country to follow leads, in particular a sort of hitman hirer named Gordo (not to be conused with Greedo), Dakota finally has a personal confrontation with Marten…who makes zero impression on the reader, and instead just escapes. So Dakota heads on home to the ranch…and meanwhile Marten closes in on the ranch with a few thugs, each armed with “machine pistols.” Their orders are to kill everyone in the ranch. Taking place at night during a snow storm, this sequence has the opportunity to be very memorable…a sort of prefigure of Prairie Fire. But instead Ralston barrels through the action in just a few pages, having wasted so much time on the pondering and the glib-dialoging. That said, at least Dakota shoots someone here – and so does his mom, toting a gun she gets out of the pantry! 

What’s worse, the ending is wholly unsatisfactory, with a certain character straight-up escaping…Dakota even giving him a thirty minute head start to get away! Of course this sets up the potential that The Deadly, Deadly Art could be viewed as the sequel to Cat Trap, but then that one takes place in New York and all the stuff with New York and Guy Marten took place before the events of Cat Trap. Still though, it’s pretty lame, sort of like the average Marc Olden novel, where the villain escapes and you know they’ll never be mentioned again. I mean I demand to see the villain’s head exploding in the finale of a men’s adventure novel! 

That’s pretty much it for Cat Trap. Two more volumes were to follow, and I’m going to suspect they will be more of the same. Still, I do really like the covers. And I’m thinking more and more that Marty’s correct and Dakota started life as scripts Ralston worked on for a proposed TV series. The ensemble cast, leisurely plotting, and lack of sex and violence are all pretty much in-line with a TV production of the era. We’ll just assume Lalo Schifrin would’ve done the soundtrack.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Spaced Out: Radical Environments Of The Psychedelic Sixties

Spaced Out: Radical Environments Of The Psychedelic Sixties, by Alastair Gordon
No month stated, 2008  Rizzoli

I’ve been obsessed with late ‘60s/early ‘70s “mod” design for a very long time – I mean if I had my way, my living room would be decorated like Barbarella’s spaceship. That “future 1960s” aesthetic you can find in sci-fi movies of the era, in particular 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gerry Anderson’s UFO and Journey To The Far Side Of The SunMoon Zero Two, Barbarella, even Anderson’s Thunderbirds and etc. Alastair Gordon’s coffee table book Spaced Out documents this ultramod aesthetic, and it is eye candy of the first order. 

First, to admit: I don’t actually own this book. I mean I just refuse to spend $50 on a book, which is the pricetag Spaced Out carries. I know, I’m cheap. But I have checked the book out via Interlibrary Loan several times since it was published in 2008! And another admission: I’ve never actually read the book! Gordon includes (what appears to be) insightful commentary on the various fringe designers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the lifestyles of the people who tried to recreate “radical environments” at the time, but honestly folks I’ve never actually read it and instead just look at the awesome photos throughout. So for this review I’ll be shutting up and just letting the book speak for itself. I can hear your cheers even from here! 

The book is split in two halves. The first, which I find more interesting, is filled with the ultramod psycedelic-inspired d├ęcor and furnishings mentioned above. The second half gets more into hairy hippie territory, with lots of geodesic domes and whatnot out in the cheap showiness of nature. (Those hippies and their domes!) Also, it should be noted that there’s a fair bit of nudity throughout Spaced Out, from swingin’ ‘60s chicks in the first half to, uh, slightly more hirsute representatives of the female form in the second half. I only note this because my four year old really likes this book…he’s been looking through it every morning since I got it from the library this latest time. But to tell the truth I’d rather him see some swinging ‘60s gals than the crap that passes for kid’s entertainment these days. (I mean seriously, bring back Thundarr the Barbarian!) 

Oh and a final note – Gordon also briefly discusses the Haus-Rucker Co. from Germany, a design outfit that did some super-cool designs, including the “Flyhead” helmet (seen in a few photos below). There’s some promo footage Haus-Rucker shot in ’68 (complete with Iron Butterfly’s “Theme” on the soundtrack!) on Youtube; you can check it out here. In fact some of the photos included in Spaced Out seem to have come from this promo, or at least were taken at the same time. 

And now finally I’ll stop typing…here are a bunch of random photos of the contents of Spaced Out

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Soul Hit

The Soul Hit, by Charlie Haas & Tim Hunter
No month stated, 1977  Harper & Row

I learned about this obscure novel thanks to the Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM. I was doing a search on “rock novels” (which is how I discovered Death Rock several years ago) and came upon a somewhat-positive review of the book. The review also mentioned that co-writer Charlie Haas had been responsible for the “hip” liner notes to be found in Warner Bros records at the time. However looking up The Soul Hit online it would appear the novel didn’t resonate much, as info is scant and there doesn’t even appear to have been a paperback edition – which is exactly what the book needed, as it’s already around the length of an average PBO of the day. 

So it only came out in hardcover, the back cover of which informs us that co-writers Hunter and Haas were buddies in college, both now live in Los Angeles, and both are in some degree involved with the entertainment industry. They make a fine writing team; it’s hard to detect two people wrote the book, so in that regard it reminded me of The Headhunters. I did notice that some chapters would open with elaborate scene-setting, usually detailing one-off or supporting characters, with the main plot being concerned with the investigation of a retired FBI agent into a music biz killing, so perhaps that was the line of delineation. At any rate the writing here is very good – very much in-line with your typical private eye yarn, but gussied up with a bit of a “literary” vibe at times. And definitely aware of the inner machinations of the record and radio business. 

The novel takes place in 1976 and opens in an AM radio station in San Luis Obispo, CA; the authors are already aware of how radio has changed so drastically, with the young jock, Barry Marsh, unable to voice too much “personality” and just sticking to the hits. This is a fun bit and comes off like the fictional equivalent of FM or Radio Waves, only it’s about the much less interesting (to me at least) world of AM instead of FM. (There will be another character who is an FM deejay later in the book, but the authors don’t bring the environment to life as much as they do here.) Barry spins some singles and then, his overnight shift over, goes to the local Y to let off some steam on the squash court. Then a sniper blows his head off. 

This introduces us to the hero of the tale: Ben Marsh, Barry’s “middle-aged” uncle, a retired FBI agent. He now lives in Oregon, tending to the peach trees on his estate. The authors bring this stuff to life with info on how to cultivate peach trees and whatnot, letting you know they’ve done their research. Marsh gets a call from another nephew – Barry’s brother – and flies to California for the funeral. The local cops haven’t made any headway, so Marsh does his own investigation. This leads to a nice bit where Barry’s girlfriend, a hippie chick who works at the college bookstore, lets Marsh into Barry’s apartment and they look around – and find all five hundred of his records smashed on the floor. This part even upset me…I mean the poor vinyl! The girl goes into the bathroom and Marsh hears some grating metal; Barry had a stash of coke hidden in the shower, payola from a PR guy from Colony Records. 

This stuff brings to mind Triple Platinum, and again the authors – likely Haas – show familiarity with how hit records don’t just happen, how it all comes down to the hustle. Also Marsh is pretty hip for an FBI guy, giving the girl back the coke after getting more info from her on where it came from. Eventually he ends up in Los Angeles, looking into the Colony PR guy, Jerry Vilella. Jerry met with Barry Marsh the day before Barry was murdered, so Marsh tries to figure out if there’s a connection. And there sure seems to be; Marsh finds the door to Vilella’s home unlocked…and Vilella himself lying on his bed, his head blown off. Marsh hears someone at the door and hides in the closet, watching as a hotstuff blonde comes in and, oblivious to the corpse under the sheets in the bed, starts to disrobe, though the authors aren’t ones to get into sleazy details. 

Her name is Carrie Voy, and she is the FM deejay mentioned above; Marsh continues to hide as she discovers Lenny’s corpse, freaks, and runs from the house. He tracks her down after the funeral and she will ultimately become his assistant in the investigation. Carrie is not only a memorable character with sparkling dialog – the authors in general deliver good, movie-esque dialog – but she also provides Marsh with another glimpse into the workings of the record business. I especially liked how she is halting and uncertain in her speech when meeting people, but cool calm and collected when on the radio. There also seemed to be a shout-out to famous WNEW-FM DJ Alison “The Nightbird” Steele here, with Carrie referring to herself on-air as “…the night light, Carrie Voy, flying on the air with the greatest of ease at ninety-three FM.” 

An interesting thing about The Soul Hit is that Marsh is older than the majority of the other characters, thus he adds a layer of reflection to everything; he notices things that younger people surely wouldn’t, and his appreciation of Carrie is altogether old-fashioned. The veteran reader knows where this is going, but the authors do a great job of making the relationship develop gradually and naturally. It starts when Marsh follows Carrie home after the funeral, and sees a thug in a suit barge into her house and threaten her with a gun. Luckily Marsh has kept his own gun (a .38 revolver) and comes to her rescue. After which Carrie is so concerned that she wants Marsh to basically stay in her place, even though he’s a stranger himself. 

Curiously this element though doesn’t go further; I kept waiting for the goons to show up again, but the authors pretty much forget about them until near the very end. Same goes for the cocaine Barry Marsh got as payola; Marsh follows this angle to the Colony Records office building, coincidentally running into a sexy “coca-skinned” stewardess who was apparently hired by Jerry Vilella to smuggle in cocaine. This subplot is built up a little and then abruptly dropped. Regardless Marsh’s visit to Colony Records is another well-delivered sequence, again bringing to mind Triple Platinum. He learns that Jerry was pushing a new single by Ovis Timbers, a sort of proto-Prince in that he’s a soul artist veering over into the pop charts: the “soul hit” of the title. 

Carrie acts as Marsh’s sort-of informant, preparing him with insider info on the music world; Jerry’s co-worker at Colony invites Marsh to a party that night being thrown for Timbers, and Marsh invites the coke-smuggling stew. He’s met her simply by walking into Jerry’s office and snooping around, and coincidentally she just happens to come by at that very moment to arrange payment for the coke she’s brought in! That night at the party Marsh “samples” the merchandise, feeling his mind blown…even though Carrie told him to “act cool” and say the coke “must’ve been cut.” But this will be it for the coke-smuggling subplot, with the focus instead on the gang war brewing around Ovis Timbers. His gang has promised to donate all proceeds to charity, and a rival gang claims it’s all b.s., and a ruckus develops. 

The vibe is very much of a private eye yarn; Marsh heads to the afterparty, and just as stews he’s with begin to disrobe (thanks to snorting some coke, apparently), he runs into one of the thugs who showed up at Carrie’s house. What makes this different than the average private eye yarn is that Marsh is a “shoot, then call the cops” sort of hero…which is exactly what he does after tangling with the thug. This introduces us to another memorable character, a police captain “older than Marsh” who has some very dry, acerbic humor. The two develop a somewhat-contentious working relationship, and Marsh is able to continue his own investigation, even keeping his gun. 

Meanwhile he sleeps in Carrie’s living room, the authors doing a good job of bringing this whole relationship to life. Carrie does the night shift, same as the Night Bird, thus her “dinner” is other people’s “breakfast.” This entails some domestic scenes of Carrie preparing meals while Marsh sits and listens to her. Nothing is rushed here, with Marsh sleeping on her couch, waiting around while she’s home so she feels safe, and then going off to investigate when she’s at the station. The authors also don’t do much to dwell on the age gap, nor the fact that Carrie’s previous fling was murdered just a few days before. In fact Marsh gives her time, and even later chastises himself for “his thoughts of love-making” when he watches her in action at the FM station one night. Regardless, Carrie as expected begins to develop feelings for Marsh, especially after he begins coming home with his ass kicked. 

This is another similarity to Mike Hammer or some other P.I. deal; Marsh gets taken through the wringer in the course of the book, captured a few times and beaten around unmerciful. At one point he’s captured by the rival gang and knocked around, then later some bikers get hold of him. This part is also cool because the authors show how records are made, the bikers running a bootleg operation. One thing I didn’t like though was that a lot of Marsh’s revelations and realizations were kept from the reader, with him doing stuff for seemingly no reason, only to explain why in the final pages. But ultimately everything is connected: the gang war, the bikers, the murders, and Ovis Timbers’s new single. While Timbers is more of a soul artist than a rock artist, the book still has the vibe of a rock novel, with lots of behind-the-scenes info and actual description of what the music sounds like, something that eludes most other “rock novelists.” This is especially pronounced in the description of Timbers’s hit single with its opening “fast bass run, low, crouching, insistent,” as well as in the concert Timbers gives in the novel’s climax. 

While the action was cool and the music biz stuff very interesting, I found myself most interested in the Marsh-Carrie relationship. Again, the initial thing that brought them together (the thugs threatening Carrie) is kind of dropped, but still the whole bit with Marsh staying with her so she’d feel safe was nicely handled. And of course she eventually comes to Marsh in the living room one night, leading to the expected shenanigans, though the authors as mentioned don’t dwell on any sleaze. But we do at least get a little resolution with those thugs, who happen to be at Timbers’s concert in the climax, along with the bikers, members of both gangs, and everyone else who has taken a shot at Marsh: “This place is more like a free fire zone than a rock concert,” our hero tells Carrie. 

I enjoyed The Soul Hit a lot, and can’t understand why it didn’t get more traction when it was released. The novel is graced with blurbs on the inner jacket: Ring Lardner, Joe Gores, and James D. Houston all provide glowing appraisals and opine that the novel is destined for success. But it doesn’t look as if it was to be. I’ve been too lazy to see if Haas and Hunter collaborated on anything else, but I certainly will one of these days, as The Soul Hit was an engaging read…and another one I never would’ve learned about if not for that Rolling Stone CD-ROM.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Butler #4: Chinese Roulette

Butler #4: Chinese Roulette, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

I took longer than expected to get back to Butler, but luckily Len Levinson again delivers a story that stands quite well on its own, only occasionally referring to past adventures. Actually the main volume referred to is the first, mostly just as a reminder of how Butler quit the CIA and started working for the Bancroft Institute, now dedicated to stopping the multinational menance known as Hydra. All of which is to say I didn’t feel like I had forgotten a chunk of the storyline going into Chinese Roulette

But then, Len goes for a zany, almost surreal vibe in this series, with Butler stumbling into plots and traps – that is, when not propositioning various women. As I’ve said before, Len is one of the very few men’s adventure authors who has his protagonists work for it; whereas the standard trope is the distressed damsel throwing herself into the arms of the studly protagonist, Len’s protagonists have to put in some serious effort to get laid. This will also at times entail several pages of entertaining dialog, as the protagonist will try his best to convince the girl they should do the deed. Today all this would be considered harrassment, I’m sure, but it’s done with such goofy glee that you can’t help but laugh. Also it furthers the image that Butler, instead of the muscular he-man of the cover, is really more of a loser; the finale in particular brings this home, with Butler being turned down by three women in a row and having to go to bed all by his lonesome. 

The same can’t be said of the start of the book, though, which features Butler and his latest flame, jet-setting Brit socialite Lady Ashley, having sex on top of a mountain in Colorado. Butler’s here for vacation, and he and Lady Ashley hit it off, to the point that Butler’s able to convince her to get it on before they ski down the mountain. Again, Butler’s the one that makes all the moves; I just find this aspect so interesting about Len’s work because you honestly don’t see it anywhere else. What makes it even more interesting is how realistic it is, compared to the genre trope mentioned above…yet at the same time, it’s one of the few realistic elements of the series. But anyway, Butler pours it on and convinces her to unzip her pants so they can do it while still clothed, here in the snow; “They humped each other shamelessly on top of the mountain.” Actually the XXX material here is pretty explicit, as are the few other sex scenes. 

Butler’s called away, though, some guys from the Bancroft Institute showing up and whisking him via helicopter to the Institute HQ “in the mountains of Big Sur.” Here we get a reminder that the Institute is devoted to liberty and stopping tyranny around the world, in particular the tyranny that is threatened by the evil global network Hydra. As I’ve mentioned before (and as Len himself did in the series recap he wrote for my review of the first volume), Len was a “Radical Socialist” at the time he wrote Butler. What’s fascinating to me is that the sentiments Butler espouses throughout are not in-line with today’s Left: he’s in favor of free thought, free speech, and fair elections, plus he’s not hung up on identity politics. So if that was the mindset of the Radical Left in 1979, then some shit has seriously changed. Butler comes off more like the kind of guy who would regularly ignore COVID mask mandates, if only to “shake up the Establishment.” In fact, Hydra sounds suspiciously similar to the Multinational-Big Tech Complex of today: “There appeared to be no shortage of maniacs and psychopaths anxious to gobble up all the wealth and power they could. They even cooperated with each other from country to country, bribing politicians, corrupting democratic processes, and enslaving populations.” 

Humorously Butler’s called in due to some dire emergency, yet Bancroft boss Mr Sheffield (whose face is still never seen, so that he comes off more like Blofeld than M) doesn’t really have much for Butler to go on: something’s up in Hong Kong, and Butler needs to go research it. That’s it; the “bubonic plague” threatened on the back cover won’t come up until much later, and Butler only even learns about it by accident. So he’s almost sent to Hong Kong on a fact-finding mission, which makes the whole “let’s pull Butler out of his vacation” schtick seem like pure sadism on Mr. Sheffield’s part. But then, I know Len would usually write these books quickly, sort of winging his way along as he went; I get the impression Len himself just wanted to write about Hong Kong, so for the most part Chinese Roulette comes off like a travelogue, with Butler sort of stumbling his way around. 

This “winging it” approach will also affect the supporting characters. Butler tells Mr. Sheffield that he’ll need a beautiful female agent to go along with him – not for his own sleazy needs, of course, but because a beautiful woman will be able to loosen up lips that Butler himself might not be able to. Butler requests series regular Wilma Wiloughby (who has a love-hate thing going on with Butler), but is told she’s on assignment elsewhere. Since Butler further demands that this hot female agent also be fluent in Chinese, Mr. Sheffield has little choice: he suggests Claudia Caribou, an Institute chemist based out of Hawaii. However, absolutely nothing will be made of Claudia Caribou in the novel, other than to become yet another object of Butler’s lust and someone for him to bounce ideas off of. She doesn’t even speak in Chinese to anyone! 

But there’s no use complaining, because the Butler-Claudia rivalry turns out to be as fun as the Butler-Wilma rivalry of past volumes. With the big difference here that Butler tries throughout the novel to get Claudia in bed. She turns out to be a mega-hot blonde, much to Butler’s surprise (he figured that as a chemist she’d be a dog), and within moments Butler’s hitting on her…only to be turned down again and again. Ultimately Butler will keep her locked up in their hotel room in Hong Kong, never letting her leave. A funny recurring joke develops that she’s like Butler’s pet, with the big difference that at least he’d take a pet out for a walk, whereas Claudia never leaves the hotel room. It would seem that Len ran out of interest in the character, though; after a lot of verbal sparring, Butler just keeps ditching Claudia in the hotel, at one point even telling her he’s decided she’s no longer necessary and can go home. 

However the focus is more on the zany; I still say Butler is a more explicit take on the “spy satire” series of the ‘60s, a la The Man From O.R.G.Y. and the like. So Butler and Claudia are verbally sparring on the flight to Hong Kong, and Butler gets all hot and bothered. He goes into the restroom, but is determined not to masturbate, as he swore that off when he was 18; he’ll either get laid or just suffer. So he looks out in the cabin, spots a “little oriental stewardess,” and calls her in to “help” with the toilet. She comes in and throughout Butler leaves his massive tool sticking out, which of course serves to get the stew hot and bothered herself. They pull an explicitly-rendered “quickie” at thirty thousand feet…and to make it even more goofy, it turns out the two have actually done this before: the stew remembers Butler’s “big one” from a previous flight! 

The stew, Mai Ling, serves to get Butler into the plot per se, but like Claudia she’s dropped from the narrative soon after. She invites Butler to a party at the famous Madame Wang’s that night, in Hong Kong. Butler’s never heard of Madame Wang, and is informed she is a wealthy businesswoman who owns the Kinki Corporation. Butler leaves Claudia in the hotel – after going out to buy her some books, including Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – and heads to the party with Mai Ling. Madame Wang turns out to be a sort of Dragon Lady out of older pulp, a ravishing Asian woman of indeterminate age who employs a legion of goons. On no basis other than this, Butler suspects she’s involved with the plot he’s here to investigate. 

The plot too is basically thrown into Butler’s lap; he runs into another familiar face: former CIA boss FJ Shankham, who is also here at the party. Butler’s cover is that he’s now a reporter for a paper out of Big Sur (a recurring joke that no one’s heard of the paper), and he goes around asking blunt questions which again don’t gel with the whole “radical leftist” thing…like asking a high-ranking official from China when China will allow free elections. He hammers Shankham with questions as well, and learns that a ship bearing vials of bubonic plague was recently discovered in the harbor. This will be the Hydra scheme Butler tries to prevent, and he literally only learns about it when asking his old CIA boss what he’s been up to. 

Meanwhile the focus is more on figuring out who Madame Wang is. There’s a nicely-done scene where Butler goes swimming in her opulent pool (during the party!) and surfaces to find the Madame watching him. Butler seems sure she’s involved in the plot, however of course still tries to bang her. No luck, so he heads home (after beating the shit out of one of her thugs, almost for no reason), where Claudia opines that Madame Wang was probably a whore – that’s why she’s now wealthy(!). But regardless, Butler goes around looking for people who might’ve known Madame Wang “back in the old days” to see if she really was a hooker…again, with nothing more to go on than an errant comment of Claudia’s. 

At this point it’s really a Hong Kong travelogue, with Butler shuffling around the city while getting in occasional fights. He still carries a .45, but only uses it rarely. The gun too entails recurring jokes, with Butler often having to explain why a reporter feels the need to carry around a gun. One of my favorites in this regard is when a cop finds him on the street with the gun and Butler tells him he found it under a car. Coincidence abounds, again proving how quickly Len wrote: Butler runs into a street kid and gives him a motorcycle Butler himself stole. Later Butler runs into the same kid, asks him if he knows any old pimps(!), and the kid says his old opium addict uncle would be just the guy for Butler to talk to, as he ran a whorehouse(!!). Even more coincidental – the old guy not only affirms that Madame Wang was once known as “Hong Kong Sally,” but he also loved her as a daughter! 

Ultimately we meet the main villain of the piece: Professor Kee, a wizened old guy who doesn’t appear as much as he should. His intro is especially nice, where he tells Butler his thoughts on reincarnation. Butler ends up a victim of Chinese Water Torture, another well-done sequence where Len hammers home how ultimately horrific this torture would be…the effect of which is a little undone when Butler pretty much just walks it off after a few days of ceaseless water-torturing, having been sprung by an unexpected savior. Soon thereafter we get to another fun scene – several pages devoted to the explicit rendering of Butler going down on Madame Wang, who reveals that she has not had sex for 15 years, since she quit the hooker game. A wild, ribald, XXX sequence containing such unforgettable lines as, ”I’m going to put you on the floor and fuck you like a dog.” 

But honestly at 204 pages of small, dense print, Chinese Roulette sort of runs out of steam. This is mostly because so much of it has been devoted to Butler fumbling his way through his “investigation” that the climax, which sees him leading an assault party of Red Chinese soldiers against Professor Kee’s compound, almost comes off as perfunctory. That said, Butler does call someone a “rat bastard” here, as if unwittingly flashing forward to the title of a future Len Levinson series. But then action is never a central point of Butler; more focus is placed on the zany comedy, like Butler’s rival in the spy game: Geoffrey Stonehall, a James Bond spoof who drives an “Austin-Martin V8” and who mostly just jumps in and out of bed with various women – something which only furthers the rivalry between the two men, given whom Geoffrey gets to score with this time. 

In his series overview Len ranked Chinese Roulette as one of his favorites in the series. I enjoyed it – I enjoy all of Len’s novels – yet at the same time I thought the plotting was a little too laissez-faire for an action novel. Too much hinged on coincidence and improbabilities…but then, such things would only matter if you were looking to Butler to be a “straight” thriller, when in reality it is everything but. In this regard the cover art, nice as it is, is too misleading. To tell the truth, when I read these books I don’t see the guy depicted on the cover as Butler – I see Len himself. So maybe Leisure Books should’ve just gotten him to pose for the covers, same as he did for The Last Buffoon.