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.

Monday, April 12, 2021

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer
No month stated, 2001  Villard Books 

Over the years I’ve become very interested in late ‘60s/early ‘70s FM rock radio, what was known at the time as “progressive freeform,” where DJs were free to spin whatever they wanted and could “rap” as long as they wanted. It was a platform that mirrored the rock scene of the day, with no commercial restrictions and “artist” DJs free to explore. In particular I’ve become almost obsessed with a DJ at WNEW-FM in New York: Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, who did the 10PM – 2AM slot and gave her sets an almost otherwordly vibe; she was so popular at the time that no less than Jimi Hendrix wrote a song about her.* 

I was born in the mid-‘70s, far away from any city, but in hindsight I realize now that the regional rock station I grew up listening to (WQZK 94.1 out of Keyser, WV) was pretty much still waving the progressive freeform flag, even in the mid-to-late 1980s. I heard songs on there you certainly wouldn’t hear on “classic rock” today, from the full-length “Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers to all kinds of long progressive stuff…in fact recently I heard Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People” and had a flashback to how I’d always hear that on the radio as a kid and loved it. WQZK would also play Orson Welles’s “The War Of The Worlds” each Halloween, and every April Fool’s Day they’d claim to have “gone disco” and just play disco music the entire day. I took all this for granted as a kid, not knowing that this was aytpical of the average rock radio station (plus it was the only rock radio station in town!), but now that I’ve learned more about progressive freeform I realize that’s pretty much what the station was.** 

Anyway this is all just preamble to say that, even though I was born well outside of the progressive freeform era, I still got to experience it somewhat…and heck, if it wasn’t for WQZK, I never would’ve even gotten into rock (it’s how I heard “A Day In The Life,” “I Am The Walrus,” and other Beatles classics as a kid). But over the years I have become more interested in original freeform radio, and again a big thanks to Javed Jafri for his Let The Universe Answer website, where you can find many vintage “airchecks” to listen to. It was through Javed’s site that I finally got to hear some Alison Steele airchecks, and I really enjoyed them – I love the “trip” she takes her listeners on, often mixing songs together for very cool segues (for example Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” into Tangerine Dream on this 1974 aircheck). 

I’ve searched high and low for a full 4-hour Alison Steele set, but no luck – I was in contact with a guy whose older brother recorded several of her shows in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s on reel-to-reel, but unfortunately he wasn’t interested in digitizing or sharing them. It was through one of my periodic searches for more Steele airchecks that I came upon mention of Richard Neer’s FM, which focuses on WNEW-FM in the 1970s, with some detail about Alison Steele. Neer himself was a DJ at the sation, starting in 1971 and staying there for 25 years. Today he still works in radio (at least he does per the bio included in this book, but the book was published 20 years ago), but now he’s moved into AM talk radio. FM chronicles the progressive freeform rock radio era, with a focus on WNEW-FM and lots of stories about the various characters who worked there. 

I’ll admit that I was unfamiliar with Neer, as well as the other DJs he talks about, but regardless the book was still very entertaining, and very well written. Neer has a definite talent for pulling you into his story and making you feel like you’re there. It’s not dry history, either, with occasional detours into behind-the-scenes gossip and innuendo. In that regard I imagine the book would be very entertaining for people who actually got to listen to WNEW-FM back in the day. And for that matter, Javed also has an aircheck of Neer’s on his site – here. I enjoyed Neer’s book more than the earlier Radio Waves, mainly because Neer mostly sticks to the more-interesting ‘70s rather than the ‘80s of Radio Waves. And also because he uses actual station and personality names, unlike the pseudonyms Jim Ladd strangely decided to use in his book. 

Neer also does a great job of making this story both personal and historical; it opens with him and his buddy, Michael Harrison, interviewing for coveted roles at super-hip and super-popular WNEW-FM, in Manhattan. From here Neer will flash back to not only his own origins in radio broadcasting, but also detail – concisely and entertainingly – how progressive FM radio itself got started. Here we have the first line of demarcation between this and Ladd’s book; whereas Ladd, a Californian, gave San Francisco and Los Angeles stations a role of prime importance in the development of “rock radio,” Neer shows how, in most cases, New York stations were already there first. He does however occasionally jump over to developments at trendsetting San Francisco stations like KSAN, though; not giving as much behind-the-scenes info as Ladd does in his more-detailed KSAN material in Radio Waves, but still managing to show how differently each coast viewed rock radio. 

One of the biggest differences is that, in FM, KSAN and the other SanFran stations are basically presented as dens of dopesmoking “hippies,” whereas most of the New York talent comes off as straight-edged. Right off the bat Neer buzzkills any hopes that FM will be filled with anecdotes of doing a radio show in the middle of the night while stoned on prime grass; he informs us that he abstains from drugs. Bummer, man! I mean I just want to read like an R-rated version of WKRP In Cincinnati, with drug-fueled, high-libido radio personalities, is that so much to ask?? But anyway Neer informs us that this pretty much goes down the line, with most of the on-air talent at WNEW sticking to booze or nothing (as for Alison Steele, Neer informs us that he never saw her “intoxicated by anything more than a New York Rangers victory”). 

So Neer is only 21 when we meet him, interviewing with WNEW Program Director Scott Muni, an idiosyncratic guy (and popular DJ himself) who likes to call people by the nickname “Fats,” even if they’re thin. Neer and buddy Harrison are already veterans of the rock radio biz despite their youth, having brought a regional station in Long Island into the progressive era. They’ve gotten such cred that even The Nightbird deigned to give their station an on-air interview; here we get our first glimpse of Alison Steele, informed that she is a ravishing redhead in her 30s with a penchant for wearing tight leather. In fact she almost sounds like she’s walked out of a Harold Robbins novel: “There was once a summer concert in Central Park when [Steele] wore a thin leather halter top, a leather bikini bottom, with high boots and a bare midriff. Boys were literally falling out of trees to get a better look.” Speaking of Robbins, Neer relates the time when Steele met with publisher Bob Guccione to explain to him why she refused to do any on-air commercials for Penthouse, and it reads almost exactly like something out of Dreams Die First

“Look,” [Steele] said, “I don’t care about naked women. I hate hair. The only hair on my entire body is on top of my head. Even my eyebrows are shaved, and I’ll leave it to your imagination what else. I can’t stand those hairy-looking women, spread-eagled in front of the camera. And until you do something about that, I won’t read your spots.” 

So as you can see, FM is at least a little like Radio Waves in that it comes off like a novel at times, complete with dialog from the various characters. I found this added to the enjoyment, though…and besides, I’ve searched high and low for a trashy paperback about a rock radio station, to no friggin’ avail. But then Neer doesn’t get very trashy here, other than the occasional mention of Steele’s somewhat-revealing clothing, or that DJs at WNEW got their own “groupies.” Neer doesn’t dwell on any of this, however he intimates that he had a few of his own; most memorable is his story of playing a bunch of jazz records late one night to impress a female fan. Another memorable sequence has a fellow jock in a “menage a trois” with a pair of female fans, while listening to his own broadcast on the radio…only to lose all focus when he hears an engineer screw up a segue on the pre-taped show. 

Neer of course gets the job at WNEW, first starting off as a weekend personality, with his main job being the Music Director. I was really interested in this and wanted to know more about it. Essentially, the Music Director chose the record library the DJs would select from – Neer gives a lot of behind-the-scenes info on how DJs at WNEW worked, and I was interested to read that the station didn’t really use engineers. Jocks would choose and spin their own records, thus perfecting the flow of their shows. But anyway it was the job of the Music Director to sort through piles of new records and file them away; especially interesting is the mention of “progressive” albums, ie ones to keep an eye on. 

I was hoping for some total music-geek stuff here, with mention of obscure acts that never made it big; for example, on Javed’s site you can hear a 1972 Alison Steele aircheck. Toward the end she plays a heavy psych number by a group called Road (the track is “Spaceship Earth,” and Road FYI featured Jimi’s former bassist Noel Redding). I’d never heard this song before and really liked it. But now having read Neer’s book, I can assume that Road was an LP that had been filed in the “progressive” bin (perhaps by Neer himself) and Steele selected it for that night. Her comments after it plays (“I bet that goes right on into the next track”) indicate that it was her first time hearing the song. Thus she must’ve pulled that one out of the bin and decided to play it. Anyway what I’m trying to say is, I wanted a little more info here on what made some records hits and others obscurities; “Spaceship Earth” is total psych heaviosity and right up my alley, but I’d never even heard of it, even though I collect records from the era. 

I’m focusing on Steele, because she’s what brought me to the book in the first place. But truth be told, she isn’t in the book very much. More focus is placed on other WNEW talent, like former horror host Zacherley. I’d heard of him just due to my interest in horror hosts many years ago, but I never knew he’d become an FM rock radio jock. He actually comes off as pretty normal, especially when compared to Jonathan Schwartz, a DJ who enjoys flaunting his writing career so no one gets the impression he has to work at the station…while meanwhile he has a penchant for eating food out of garbage cans. Another personality who makes an impression is Rosko, a black DJ who was outspoken on leftist political causes and in fact unwittingly provided Neer and Harrison’s entrance into the fold: Rosko was by far the most popular DJ at the station, but when he abruptly quit in 1971 he opened the door for new talent. 

Neer focuses so much on the various personalities that sometimes he himself is lost in the shuffle, and he almost comes off like a faceless chronicler of events. But he too was part of the scene, with his own shows and fans. We get a lot of good info on how shows were run in the ‘70s, and also how live concerts were broadcast, with Neer spearheading many of them. There are even some rockstar appearances; Neer had a nightly chat session with pre-stardom Bruce Springsteen, and another jock became lifelong friends with George Harrison. John Lennon also makes an appearance; a DJ named Dennis Elsas meets him at a recording studio, drums up the courage to ask Lennon if he’d ever like to come by for an interview, and is shocked when Lennon does indeed appear a few days later for a four-hour chat on the air. 

In addition to the California stations, we also read a little about WBCN out of Boston, in particular famous DJ Charles Laquidara, whose “The Big Mattress” show sounds like a lot of fun. A spoof of AM talk radio, it featured various personalities voiced by Laquidara himself. I’ve listened to a few of the aichecks at the link above and they’re a lot of fun; I especially like Laquidara’s drug-fueled alter ego Captain Squid. But as mentioned for the most part the focus is on WNEW, and, as with Radio Waves, Neer documents how the free reign of DJs gradually narrowed as the ‘70s progressed. Ratings became the be-all, end-all, with jocks constrained to only making idle chatter between hit songs. 

As with Radio Waves, I really lost interest in the book as the ‘70s became the ‘80s. But the changes at WNEW were already profound; various jocks had left or been fired, even Alison Steele. Neer, having moved into a management position, was put through an early trial by fire in 1978 when he was asked by management if he thought Steele should be let go; her extracurricular duties (TV commercials, voice over gigs, etc) were getting in the way of her nightly shows. More importantly, she had also clearly lost interest in the music, putting a record on and going out to talk to people in the studio. Neer relates how Steele was given multiple warnings, but when she left a stuck record on for eleven minutes one night her number was up. Neer has no choice but to say that the woman who basically helped start his career at WNEW should be let go. This will be it for Steele; she leaves without a word, and isn’t heard from again in the text until the very end, where we are informed she passed away in 1995 after a battle with cancer. 

To his credit Neer plows rather quickly through the less-interesting ‘80s and ‘90s. I say less interesting because at this point the freeform era had come to a close; WNEW was still freeform enough in 1980, Neer relates, that it could give special coverage to John Lennon’s murder, with long commentary by all the station jocks on what Lennon meant to them. But after this the creativity is reigned in by increasingly restrictive management demands, to the point that WNEW itself eventually drops the entire rock angle. As the novel progresses there is more focus on the politics of running a radio station, and I found all of it less interesting than the earlier ‘70s material. 

Overall though I found FM pretty entertaining. As stated Neer is a skilled writer and really captures the spirit of the day, making one wish that more airchecks survived from this era. The book is definitely recommended for anyone who’d like to learn more about progressive rock radio, and is the best one I’ve yet read on the topic. 

*This would be the posthumously-released “Night Bird Flying,” which came out in 1970 on The Cry Of Love, which was the first album put out after Jimi’s death. The story of it being inspired by Steele seems to have come from Steele herself; in fact, this is how I first even heard of Alison Steele. In 1995 I got the Hendrix CD Voodoo Soup, which featured a booklet with liner notes by Michael Fairchild. In these notes Fairchild relayed the story on “Night Bird Flying;” supposedly one night Steele was playing the song on her show and she received a call from Jimi’s former manager, Michael Jeffery (who himself was killed in a plane crash, in March 1973). Jeffery told her that the song had been inspired by her show. Interestingly, this story is not relayed in FM, even though the short chapter devoted to Steele is titled “Night Bird Flying.” While Hendrix is occasionally mentioned, we’re told that the only WNEW personality he had any contact with was Rosko. Hendrix was also a gifted artist, and a drawing has surfaced with what seems to be early lyrics for “Night Bird Flying,” along with a winged female figure that might be Jimi’s take on Steele’s likeness (not to mention a jutting phallus!!); you can read about it here

**Something I remember vividly from the mid-’80s is the incessant promo WQZK would play, announcing that they’d gone digital: “It’s final, we’re off the vinyl.” And then you’d hear a stuck record being yanked off the platter. I’ve searched high and low for audio of this promo over the years. No luck.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Reunion For Death (Hardy #5)

Reunion For Death, by Martin Meyers
No month stated, 1976  Popular Library

The Hardy series draws to a close with a fifth installment that sees Martin Meyers apparently trying very hard to live up to the “sensuous sleuth” tagline the publisher labellled the series with. While Patrick Hardy has gotten lucky frequently in past volumes, this one sees him scoring right and left, even engaging in a two-way with a pair of hippie girls (“fears of V.D.” be damned!). This is all the more impressive given that Hardy’s 40 pounds overweight this volume and struggling to get back in shape. One wonders why he’d even bother. 

There’s no real pickup from the previous volume, though Hardy does occasionally reflect on previous jobs, particularly with the Duchess in Spy And Die; but even here the focus is on the “sensuous” aspect of the job, as the Duchess told Hardy she was the best lover she’d ever had – even better than a KGB agent trained for such stuff. However Meyers has cagily foreshadowed the events of this one; in the previous volume, Hardy got a mailing from his college alumni association, and this volume’s plot concerns a murder mystery involving Hardy’s college pals of twenty years ago. I only recall this about the alumni letter in the previous book because Meyers reminds us of it. For this is a series where pedantic, trivial little details are of key importance, because not much else really happens (other than the frequent sexual interludes, that is); as ever, “action” is mostly comprised of Hardy “flipping through the TV Guide” to see which movie he can watch while he prepares his latest meal. 

Meyers gets the sex out of the way quick, with Hardy entertaining his casual girflriend Ruby, a stripper whose been around since the first volume. Ruby mentions Hardy’s gained some weight and then jumps in bed with him for some off-page fun, after which she disappears from the novel, heading out of town for an engagement. She implores Hardy to visit his doctor, yet another recurring character; Dr. Merle Foster, who puts up with Hardy’s frequent come-ons, given that she’s a hotstuff babe and all. She sets Hardy up with some “pills” to help with his blood pressure and also gives him the card of a fat-loss place called “Fat Limited.” All this is pretty similar to the setup of the previous volume, which also had Hardy going to a fitness facility. 

This means that a lot of Reunion For Death is made up of Hardy’s diet, how hungry he is, how he forces himself to eat less, etc. At least this livens up the “what’s on TV” material. Otherwise as mentioned, Hardy gets laid a helluva lot for a fat guy: Ruby, the two hippie chicks, and a couple other babes all in the course of a 160-page novel. But still we must endure lots of stuff about his worries over his weight and how he restrains from eating high-caloric meals and snacks. The biggest impact on Hardy so far as the extra weight goes is the pills Dr. Merle gives him for his pressure, which cause all sorts of side effects, in particular taking away the feeling of “completeness” in climax. So as I say, Meyers has now figured out how to incorporate the “sensuous” aspect into everything in the narrative. 

After getting all the diet stuff set up, Meyers moves into this volume’s case; Hardy receives a call from old college buddy named Lassiter, who says he’s been looking for another college friend of theirs, Ben Alsop. Lassiter’s in California and Alsop’s in New York, thus Lassiter asks Hardy to look him up. A curious thing about Reunion For Death is that there’s no feeling that any of these people were ever friends. I know it’s been over 20 years since they’ve seen each other, but still…if my friends from college 20+ years ago called me, I’d at least talk about old times or whatever. But Lassiter and the other college friends who pop up in the novel are along the lines of any other one-off characters in the series; there’s no conveyed sense that they were friends at one time. 

This is sort of explained in a brief recap; Hardy was morbidly obese in college, thus was mainly friends with spindly geek Ben Alsop, given that the two were outcasts in school. It was through Alsop that Hardy met the other guys: Lassiter, Ricci, and Leon, all of whom were popular jocks. So then Hardy was never “buddies” with any of them except for Alsop, and Alsop’s the one he spends the entire novel looking for. But regardless, there isn’t much in the way of background setup here, nothing other than a vaguely “subtle” mention that a girl went missing one year in college…a mystery Hardy forgot about years ago because he “wasn’t interested in such things at the time.” But this minor mention is all that’s made of the mysterious incident of twenty years before, thus the big revelations at novel’s end come off as very lame. 

Even more lame is when Hardy can’t get through to Ben on the number listed in the phone book; he talks to some other spaced-out guy and tries to convey a message. So later Hardy’s out walking his dog Holmes and notices a hotstuff black lady approaching his apartment. This will be Melanie, whom Hardy lusts after the entire novel. She has a letter for Hardy from Ben, but “the postman or someone got it wet.” So Hardy will have to piece together the letter upon which various words have been conveniently erased. It’s all ridiculous, but meanwhile he’s busy checking out Melanie and wondering if he should get a shot at her, even though she is, by her own admission, “Ben’s girl.” 

Not that this prevents Hardy from his nookie; he goes to the sleazepit apartment under Ben’s name, to find it’s a hippie crash pad. The hippie girl there, as mentioned above, offers herself to Hardy moments after they meet. Here we get an indication that the sex material in Reunion For Death will be a little more explicit than previously in the series. But also as mentioned Hardy doesn’t feel “right” when he reaches the big moment, thus he rushes back to Dr. Merle, who tells him it’s all a side effect of the drugs, and his body will adjust. So Hardy skips the next day’s dose and heads back to the hippie crash bad, to engage the hippie girl in another tussle…and then immediately thereafter, the other hippie girl who happens to be there! Everything working properly now, Hardy happily heads home and continues fantasizing about Melanie. 

Meyers actually restrains himself on this one; with it being a “will they or won’t they” thing that keeps up between Melanie and Hardy throughout the book. He also injects a bit more action into the novel; while the otherwise nice cover is as misleading as all the previous ones were (Hardy doesn’t own a gun, let alone use one), Hardy does get shot at a few times, and also gets to use his military-programmed “reflexes” to take on a few armed opponents. That being said, there is as ever a humorous lack of tension in the plot. Like for example, when Melanie and Hardy go to Ben’s other apartment, Melanie reveals that the place has clearly been searched by someone. She says this mere moments after the two have entered the apartment. For all they know, the interlopers could still be in there. But what does Hardy do? He tells Melanie to take a look around and flops on the couch to do some crossword puzzles! 

The other two college “pals” come out of the woodwork, both of them looking for a package that was supposedly at Ben’s apartment: Ricci, who is now an interior decorator and seems to be gay whereas he was a lady killer back in college, and Leon, who doesn’t contribute much to the plot other than taking a few shots at Hardy. Eventually a heroin-smuggling scheme is worked in; Ben Alsop is found dead in Mexico, courtesy a few shots to the back of the head, and a Mexican cop (working with recurring series character Detective Gerald Friday) believes Alsop was smuggling drugs over the border. Hardy doesn’t even bat an eye that his old college pal is dead – instead he wonders how long he should allow Melanie to mourn before he tries to get in her pants! 

Surprisingly though we never do get to see it happen, even though Melanie starts making longing looks at Hardy. Instead Hardy gets lucky courtesy some floozie he hooks up with thanks to old pal Lassiter, now in town and suddenly giving off menacing vibes. Hardy gets in a few fistfights here and there, as ever his reflexes kicking into gear when threatened; Hardy will pulverize his opponent, then go and vomit in terror (to quote Homer Simpson). The finale sees that damn crossword puzzle coming into play, the one Hardy picked up at Ben’s apartment; Ben left a clue in it, and after much pondering Hardy figures out how to solve it – and also finds the package everyone’s been looking for, which you guessed it, contains photos of that fatal night two decades ago where the poor girl went missing. Blackmail Ben was using on his three “pals.” 

Meyers ends the novel – and series – on a sex joke. Melanie, feeling all better now, lets it be clear that she wants some good lovin’ with Hardy posthaste…then the phone rings and it’s Ruby, who has just arrived back in town and is on her way over: “I’m so horny for you I’m shaking.” The book ends with Hardy in a serious predicament, with one randy girl in hand and another randy girl on her way over. This was as good a way as any to end Hardy, which unfortunately didn’t pan out like I hoped it would. I recall when I discovered this series years ago…it sounded like everything I could want, a sleazy ‘70s private eye yarn with a military-programmed hero. But man, Martin Meyers instead went for a ridiculously leisurely approach, with more focus on what Hardy ate or watched on TV. So to tell the truth I’m not too bummed that there were no more volumes.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Justin Perry: The Assassin #4: Death’s Running Mate

Justin Perry: The Assassin #4: Deaths Running Mate, by John D. Revere
January, 1985  Pinnacle Books

I meant to read this fourth volume of Justin Perry back in November, but I’m glad I didn’t; I don’t think I could’ve handled two fictitious elections at the time.* The plot of Death’s Running Mate concerns an evil organization’s scheme to get its female candidate into the White House, no matter the cost: election laws, the Constitution, and the will of the American people be damned. As if such a thing could happen in the real world! Luckily the Federal government is concerned about such things (in the book, I mean), thus the CIA calls in its top assassin to stop the scheme: Justin “I guess I’m a weirdo” Perry. 

As I mention every single time, I read the last volume first, which while not ideal has allowed me to see the story Hal “John D. Revere” seemingly had in mind from the first volume. Namely, that this is a deeply perverted satire of the men’s adventure or spy genre and also that it’s a psycho-sexual headfuck of the highest order. In fact some of it is downright creepy in the surreal textures Bennett adds to the narrative. But don’t get me wrong; this one’s a total failure as an “adventure novel,” as all the other volumes in the series are: action is practically nonexistent, there’s endless amounts of exposition and padding, and major events and plot developments occur off-page. But then it’s very clear by this point that the series doesn’t take place in any normal sort of reality. 

There’s no pickup from the previous volume, and in fact Bennett pulls all sorts of “literary” narrative tricks with this one so far as time goes. It opens toward the end, with Justin flashing back to a year ago, and from there the narrative will continue flashing back and forth to random points (including even to Justin’s childhood and to his first kill as a CIA assassin) before finally getting back to this opening section, which is actually the finale…which is then rendered in summary, Bennett having run out of pages given all his excessive padding. Anyway, we meet Justin Perry in November of 1983 (so then a month after the previous volume...yet the events of this novel actually occur before that volume, and thus would contradict its events!), with his erstwhile sidekick/demonic familiar Bob Dante; they’re in the small town of Carlton, Illinois, and Justin informs Bob they’re going to have to blow up the entire town – killing everyone in it. This leads into a discussion of how there are no children in the town – everyone here, Justin affirms, is depraved and evil, and deserving of death. 

From here we get into the typically-bizarre circumstances which set the scene. We flash back to February of ’83, in which two weird incidents occurred: SADIF, that SPECTRE-like evil organization dedicated to conquering the world (which will ultimately be cast aside in the following volume, to be revealed as a front for a Halley Comet-worshipping cult), has freed patients from several mental institutions around the country. On that same night, a ravishing brunette named Andrea McKay announces the start of the Federalist-Liberal Party (“a colorful coalition of dissident Democrats and Republicans, homosexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, cripples, females, and the like”), which is determined to “throw the rats out” of DC (a sort of prefigure of “Drain the Swamp,” but then Bennett prefigures a lot of stuff here). To give evidence to this, McKay’s party is known for eating rat meat and drinking champagne. 

Justin’s CIA boss, the Old Man (who is revealed here to only be 40 years old!), is convinced these two incidents are connected. He’s truly presented as a sadist this time; he has “scripts” he prepares for his agents, complete with veritable stage directions they’re to follow when on assignment, with photos of “suspected SADIF agents” to look out for. Bennett especially rams home this whole “play” motif this time, with events happening on cue…just as predicted in the Old Man’s script, complete with even suspected SADIF agents making “dramatic” entries. And again this is all just foreshadowing for the following volume’s revelation that the Old Man is really boss of the Halley Society, and another person whose entire life has apparently been spent toying with Justin Perry like a puppet on strings. And again all of it adding to the surreal vibe of the entire series. 

So Justin’s sent to Chicago, where he’s to pose as a psychiatrist at Riverview, one of the sanitariums SADIF didn’t break anyone out of. Just to make things all the more weird, Justin sees a hot babe in a truck filled with pumpkins following behind him as he drives to the sanitarium; his thoughts here are so humorous I just had to share them: 

This leads into a super-freaky flashback to when Justin was 15 in Orlando, Florida, staying with his Aunt Eugenia. Now, Justin only thinks of Orlando because it’s the title of the assignment the Old Man has given him…and ultimately, wouldn’t you believe it, practically everything that happens in the novel turns out to have to do with people Justin knew when he was a teenager in Orlando. Again more subtext that every single thing in this series is some concoted scheme, put together for the benefit of Justin Perry…who would in the final volume be revealed to be the guy a secret society looks to to impregnate women for a thousand years. There’s almost a proto-Truman Show vibe to the series, with Justin being shuffled around by behind-the-scene sadists who move him like a chesspiece. The Old Man’s otherwise-pointless titling of this particular assignment “Operation Orlando” is really just another mindworm the boss has implanted in Justin’s head, to get him thinking back to Orlando twenty years ago. 

But anyway, Justin starts thinking about those days with his Aunt, and the horny little nympho named Thelma Carew who was 15 like Justin and who “taught him how to fuck.” There’s a lot of wild stuff here; Thelma, cliched Southern trash type, often goes on how Justin has “a dick just like a n –” And FYI later in the book we’ll be formed that Justin measures 9.5 inches on that particular scale. Well anyway, all this flashback stuff with Thelma goes on and on, and it’s as gutter-minded as can be, filled with lots of stuff about the “spilled come” of Justin and his pals in the various orgies Thelma would stage – again, the obsession with sperm, which would be played out in Stud Service. This sequence comes to a surreal head when Thelma announces one day that there’s going to be a “white sacrifice” (Thelma herself being white, by the way), and Justin’s been bestowed the honor; what he ultimately has to do is deflower another girl his age, one named Betty, on an altar. 

Which brings us back to the “present,” as it were, ie February of 1983 (but then all this too is part of the overall flashback setup that makes up the narrative). Justin, horny as ever – especially after reminiscing over all those tussles with Thelma – checks out the babe tailing him in the pumpkin truck, pulls over, and points for the girl to kneel on the ground before him and give him a (off-page) blowjob! They decide to go to a hotel and screw…then the girl tries to ram him from behind and her truck explodes, courtesy bombs SADIF implanted in the pumpkins. Justin literally just walks it off and catches a ride with someone who is heading by. And of course later – like toward the end of the novel – we’ll learn this girl was one of the “SADIF suspects” in the photo file the Old Man gave Justin in his script. But this is after an almost endless series of reversals and counter-reversals of who this girl (and so many others) really was. As I say, this series is almost baffling in how creepy-crawly weird it is. Every single thing that happens is part of some sadistic SADIF scheme, or something the Old Man cooked up, all the parts falling like clockwork…and all of them having something to do with Justin Perry. 

Even more freakish is Justin’s “interview” in the sanitarium. The head psychiatrist informs Justin that female patients are allowed to indulge in their “fantasies,” and that male psyciatrists treat them in “the most meaningful way.” “Fucking, you mean,” replies Justin, after which the head psych has Justin get naked so he can check out the size of his dick! The head doc approves, and Justin’s sent to his room…and who would’ve thought it, but it turns out that another psychiatrist working here is…none other than Dr. Thelma Carew! Yes, the same Southern gal who engaged in all sort of shenanigans with Justin when they were both 15, back in Orlando. But as you see, the surreal vibe of this series is through the roof…Justin was just flashing back to this girl some pages ago…and now here she is out of the blue, twenty years later. 

While Justin Perry is certainly weird and off-putting, I suspect Hal Bennett was rather proud of it. I say this because, for the first time in the series, Bennett refers to himself: when Justin unpacks his suitcase, among the items is “a completely innocent and gimmic-free copy of a novel by a writer named Hal Bennett.” This again leads me to believe that Justin Perry wasn’t so much contract work that Bennett “had” to do, but more of a literary experiment…the perverted, disturbed nature runs so deep that it can’t be anything but a calculated attempt at surreal satire. Even the metaphors and analogies are disturbed, ie, “…he said spitefully, as though he had caught a trusted friend crapping on a prized rug.” Speaking of which, one of the metaphors hints that “John D. Revere” is in fact black; at one point Justin looks at the moon, and it looks “like a white woman’s face, turning away.” Of course the moon is white, but specifically referring to a “white woman” implies that the author himself is not white. And also this could be another “tell” that the entire thing is just some author’s in-joke. 

We get another of those jarring time-switches; Justin settles into bed, his first night in the sanitarium, wondering if the entire thing is a SADIF trap and if everyone in the asylum is a SADIF agent. He hears someone at the door…and next chapter it’s four months later and Justin Perry is a battered mental wreck in the asylum, having been committed. One of the things used to commit him was the photo footage of him getting naked in the head psychiatrist’s office! All of it has been a setup, but even stranger is the revelation that the Old Man also played a part in having Justin committed. But even here we have more flashbacks within flashforwards – we go back to the night he was abducted, and it was four hot women who came to Justin’s room, engaging him in an all-night orgy: “Their pussies and lips wrapped around him like animated oysters.” 

As ever Bennett doesn’t go much for the actual graphic description, more so for crude after-the-fact statements like, “She was the one who had nearly sucked his asshole out through his dick, at the orgy.” I mean honestly you can almost sense the author cackling at the typewriter as he gives vent to every depraved teenaged fantasy he ever had. The “committed Justin” stuff goes on far too long, again coming off like a huge paranoid trip, as suddenly Justin doesn’t know who he can trust or why he’s been abandoned. Even Thelma, who knows Justin for who he is (ie Roger Johnson, Justin’s pre-CIA name), suddenly treats him like an inmate. Justin eventually marshalls himself back to sanity with the mantra “I have a son!,” which ultimately comes off as humorous…because once Justin does get out of the asylum, he doesn’t call or even mention his son! Instead the focus is on a bizarre interview (which goes on for pages and pages) in which four beautiful inmates – the very same foursome who engaged Justin in that orgy months ago – ask Justin questions on the economy, politics, and the like, as if this were a political debate. 

After the debate Justin’s drugged again, and has a “dream” in which a ravishing brunette has very explicity-rendered sex with him. Of course he wakes up to discover it wasn’t a dream at all. Next day Justin gets out of the asylum, saved by Bob Dante and Thelma Carew (who turns out to an undercover KGB agent, working with the CIA to stop SADIF), and we never do get acceptable explanation why the Old Man kept him there so long. For none of it was part of the Old Man’s assignment sheet, aka his “script.” Instead we go back down to Orlando, where Justin discovers that old Aunt Eugenia is dying, poisoned by some SADIF agent. Oh, and she’s his real mom; the woman who raised Justin, as revealed in volume 1, was also a SADIF agent – here we learn the pleasure the evil woman experienced when she finally got to tell young Justin she was not his real mother! Anyway aunt-mother Eugenia dies…and leaves Justin 8 million dollars in her will! “She was a very shrewd businesswoman,” a lawyer somewhat needlessly explains. 

Finally we get to the main plot per se, which continues with the entire depraved theme: Andrea McKay, the gorgeous rat-eating head of the new SADIF-aligned political party, is so famous with voters that she treatens the incumbent Republican President. (We’re informed the Democrat hopeful is such a loser he doesn’t have a chance!) Indeed, Andrea McKay hasn’t even given a single political speech, but she’s so popular with the rabble – merely appearing on talk shows and in magazines – that she could win the election as a write-in. Earlier I mentioned the prescience Bennett sometimes hits upon. We come to this here, as the Old Man gives a “blanket indictment of the American press” to Justin and the other CIA agents: 

This whole section really threw me for a loop; it’s like Bennett saw what passed for the mainstream media circa 2016-2020. The first paragraph alone sums up the COVID fear-porn that has served as headline news for the past fucking year. Especially notable is the Old Man’s comment that the people will vote for whoever the press is against.  His solution is for the media to proclaim bad people good, so that voters won’t vote for them, out of general contrariness. It’s for this bonkers reason that the CIA can’t go forward with the info that Andrea McKay is actually an agent for SADIF; if they were to do so, voters would disbelieve the press and vote for McKay anyway. 

But we’re not done with the prescience yet. Here’s another bit that I found very compelling, after our summer of “peaceful protests” and the situation it has led us to: 

And finally check this out…we learn that Andrea McKay might win because she encourages voters to stay home!  (Not to mention that she's a “fabrication of the American news media!”)  

But anyway the book is crazy enough without the predictions that came true: Justin finally sees Andrea McKay on TV (“She looked like a spectacular Dolly Parton with large breasts, black hair and green eyes” – and let’s not forget that memorable line “slut-green eyes” from Volume 1, yet another recurring Bennett motif). He is shocked to discover it is the very same ravishing brunette who had sex with him the night before he escaped the asylum! Even more surreal…when Andrea has her first political debate and is asked questions on the economy and politics and whatnot, the answers she gives are the exact same answers Justin gave to the four female invates in his own “debate” at the asylum! As I say, this entire series is just so weird, and made even more weird by Justin’s almost casual acceptance of how weird everything is. But any forward momentum is abruptly lost, as Justin next moves on to Carlton, Illinois, smalltown home of Andrea McKay, and proceeds to spend nine months there, posing as a journalist. This part just goes on and on and on and is mostly made up of blocks of narrative. 

Meanwhile Justin has energetic sex with Fran, the hot blonde receptionist at his hotel (and yet another SADIF agent); per the series template, there is a violent aspect to the relationship, with Justin enjoying the power he has over her, thanks to his massive member: “Perhaps he would kill her right now, with his dick.” Speaking of killing, Justin finally lives up to his “assassin” tag very late in the novel. Once again clad in the one-piece black nylon suit he sports on the covers, he knifes four SADIF agents to death in the dark, as ever getting all hot and bothered in the process. These men are security for Andrea McKay, who turns out to be a basketcase under the care of Dr. Thelma Carew…and further her full name happens to be Andrea Beth McKay…and yes, the very same “Betty” Justin deflowered in Orlando twenty years ago! Justin conjugates with her right here in the open showiness of nature: “His balls slapped like bell clappers against her ass, hurting him; but the pain felt good.” 

But even this will turn out to be an endless series of reversals and re-reversals. Perhaps Andrea McKay really isn’t Betty from Orlando…and maybe she’s just been programmed by a certain person, given the implant that’s embedded behind her left ear. Regardless, Andrea happens to win the election, even though she’s so mentally incompetent that she doesn’t know where she is half the time, and is only lucid when drugged up by her handlers. (No comment!) But even here in the homestretch it’s all about the exposition and the narrative padding; even worse is what seems to be the climactic moment, with Justin and Bob, both in those black commando suits, about to blow up Carlston (ie the incident which started off the friggin’ novel, 180 pages ago)…and then Bennet flash forwards yet again, to three months later and Justin hanging out in Jamaica! Even here the “climax” is relayed via backstory, Justin reflecting on the events of that night, in which friends turned out to be SADIF agents. This part does at least have a memorable moment where Justin blows away a shotgun-wielding old woman. 

And that’s it, really. Another recurring motif – and likely another in-joke – is how Justin’s always falling in “love” with some woman; it’s happened pretty much every volume. This time he thinks he’s falling in love with both Thelma and Andrea, but of course doesn’t know whether either (or both) of them is SADIF. Not that it matters; Death’s Running Mate ends with Justin happily reunited with one of the two, here in Jamaica, but we know she’ll be out of the picture soon, given Justin’s statement that she’ll be sent to South America to stay in a CIA safehouse so as to escape SADIF’s wrath. As for the other female character, Justin has dispatched her…unbelievably enough, off-page! One almost gets the impression that Bennett is so busy with all his psycho-sexual literary subtext that he’s overlooked how to tell a compelling story. 

Regardless, I really did enjoy Justin Perry. I think it would be rewarding to read the whole series at once; I bet that would really reveal how Bennett had the end game in mind from the start. But also at the same time your brain would truly be rotted after such an experience. I’m almost tempted to re-read Stud Service now that I’ve read the previous four books, just to catch all the stuff I missed that first time. And you know what, maybe I’ll do just that. 

*I am of course referring to the plot of The Penetrator #37: Candidates Blood, which I read in October. I hope you didn’t get the wrong impression, comrades!

Thursday, April 1, 2021


Altamont, edited by Jonathan Eisen
July, 1970  Avon Books

Jonathan Eisen published a trio of rock books in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: The Age Of Rock and The Age Of Rock II, and finally Twenty-Minute Fandangos And Forever Changes. I have all three of them and keep meaning to read them; they’re very long anthologies of rock journalism by various authors. The first one seems to be mostly taken from magazines, but the last two are all new material, and both feature great, super-weird essays by future Blue Oyster Cult lyricsist Sandy Pearlman. These three books are fairly easy to find, however this fourth anthology of Eisen’s, Altamont, is quite rare and overpriced. Luckily I was able to get a copy from Interlibrary Loan, which was pretty surprising given that the book was a paperback original. 

As with the three rock books mentioned above, Altamont only features an Introduction by Eisen, after which the articles are all contributed by various rock writers. The range is much more narrow than the other three anthologies though, limited mostly to various indictments against the infamous Altamont debacle, that December 1969 single-day festival where Hell’s Angels ran roughshod over the cowed hippie audience, where four people lost their lives (one killed near the stage, two run over, and one drowned). In fact the indictments run so thick and constant that by the end of the book I almost felt like that lame old joke, “Yes, Mrs, Lincoln – but how was the play?” Because honestly you don’t get much about any of the actual music that day, it’s just all about the horrific conditions, with Hell’s Angels beating people to pulp, an obese naked man running around, and the Stones in general and Mick Jagger in particular being blamed for just about everything bad. 

Altamont features unusual packaging, sort of along the lines of a few other paperbacks of the era: The Making Of Kubrick’s 2001 and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book!; like them it’s stuffed to the gills with black and white photos. It also has some very large print; it runs to 271 pages, but you could read this thing in a few hours. Curiously only a few photos are used, but there’s a lot of repetition of them throughout the text. Overall it seems to me that Avon was trying to make the book an art piece along the lines of the Kubrick paperback. Or perhaps they feared their target audience would be put off by too many words and stuff. This runs counter to the three rock books Eisen also edited at the time; some of the collected pieces in those run to inordinate lengths and come off like doctoral theses on rock. None of that is to be found here, though, with all the contributors sticking to a more grounded approach to the Altamont debacle. However it would’ve been nice if there had been some discussion of the music that was to be heard that day. 

Eisen’s intro gives a bit of historical background on the “tribal gatherings” that began in the late ‘60s, culminating of course in Woodstock, and how Altamont was the dark reflection of it. Or the “counter-Woodstock,” as the first page of the book puts it. Eisen at times approaches the “egghead rock journalism” vibe of his other three rock anthologies: “Nevertheless the outlaw cult, while potentially revolutionary, has reached the point where it is helping sunder the national fabric, but in potentially destructive, privatistic directions rather than in ways that can help accommodate new and more humane ways of organizing itself socially.” Yeah, but what about the music, man? Sadly there isn’t much about it. Indeed, “Altamont was nothing in itself. It was not very special except to make people realize how similar we all are to the society we have no choice but to abhor.” This is just a taste of the America bashing we’ll endure in Altamont, but then Eisen’s entire work here is thrown into question on page 22, when we encounter the line: “…the gigantic and insatiable ego of Mick Jaggar[sp].” 

Of course, Jagger’s name is spelled correctly from then on out, but that sole gaffe is enough to make one wonder why the hell he’s even bothering to read the book. (And to be fair, some copy editor at Avon could’ve made the flub.) And also, I want my rock stars to have gigantic and insatiable egos! Eisen though is part of that Jon Landau school of rock criticism where he thinks every rocker should be some hardscrabble man of the people who speaks from his heart and other such bullshit. To hell with that – I want ‘em loaded to the gills on drugs and self-importance. At any rate, the “insatiable ego” dig on Jagger is due to the long-held conviction that murder at Altamont only occurred because Jagger “insisted” that the group not take the stage until nightfall. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that it was revealed, by journalist Stanley Booth, that the Stones came on late because they were waiting for Bill Wyman to arrive. 

Speaking of the murder, it was of a young black man named Meredith Hunter who was stabbed by a Hell’s Angel mere feet away from the Stones as they were performing on stage. There is inconsistency in the book, though, because Eisen in his intro states that Hunter “may or may not have” been pointing a pistol at Jagger when the Angels swooped in on him; the Angels long argued that they’d saved Jagger’s life. Later in the book, though, a study of the Altamont documentary reveals that frame-by-frame analysis of the fated moment “clearly” shows a pistol in Hunter’s hand. That would seem to render Eisen’s “may or may not have” statement a bit moot. The whole affair still seems to be shrouded in mystery; by the by, Sandy Pearlman in Twenty Minute Fandangos delivered a super-long (and super weird) essay titled “Excerpts From The History Of Los Angeles, 1965 – 1969,” apparently the work in progress of a book he never completed, which went into a “conspiracy theory” about the murder at Altamont. 

The first actual piece in the book is pure self-involved late ‘60s Woodstock Age: a poem, with lines line “But Babylon opens/To sweet lies.” It’s titled “Altamont Premonition” and it’s by George Paul Csicsery, who per the credits “writes for west coast publications” and was “one of the most beautiful people [Eisen] met” when he was putting together the book. Okay… Much better is the following piece, “Satan and the Angels: Paradise Loused,” by Andy Gordon. This is one of the best parts of the book, as it’s a long memoir about attending Altamont and so provides a lot more context than the other essays. Per the credits this is an “original piece” for the book; Gordon was a graduate student, and he well captures the nightmarish vibe of Altamont, with the mounting madness of the Angels and the increasingly dire situations. Yet he too has little to say about the music, ultimately ducking out of the concert when he sees an open spot in the massive crowd around him while the Stones are performing: “I drove home the same way I came – alone.” 

“Bye-bye Sweet Brian, So Long Mick,” by Robert Somma is humorous in that the entire thing is a bitch session. Somma literally bitches about everything in 1969, “a very bad year,” in particular the albums that came out. This is of course hilarious given the quality of music released in 1969…here we are over fifty years later and people are still listening to it! Good grief, Somma even complains about “the second Rolling Stones compilation,” saying it’s not as good as the first one was; he’s clearly talking about Through The Past, Darkly, which contained songs like “Paint It Black” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “2000 Light Years From Home.” Yeah, that one really sucked, man! According to the credits Somma was an editor of some magazine called Fusion; his diatribe becomes tiresome (expectedly doling out the usual political complaints as well), but he did make me chuckle with his off-hand dismissal of The Who’s Tommy: “a not-quite-first-rate hyrbrid essay on what it’s like being Peter Townshend.” 

As mentioned we get a few interviews, including a seemingly endless one with Sonny Barger, head of the San Francisco Hell’s Angels. It’s conducted with KSAN, one of the more famous progressive freeform FM stations of the day, but the names of the KSAN jocks doing the interview aren’t stated. It’s presented as a transcript, and humorously one of the KSAN jocks is refered to as “KSAN (Girl).” Barger insists his Angels were just doing the job they were hired to do and also takes a moment to rake Jagger over the coals, something that’s done in practically every article in the book. My favorite part of this one was how the KSAN “Girl” kept trying to ask Barger a question but he just kept talking over her. Otherwise it just goes on and on. Better yet is “The Terror Beyond Death,” by Lar Tusb, a pseudonym of Richard Meltzer (per the credits at the end of the book). This is a satirical piece that puts a darkly humorous spin on the Altamont debacle, complete with b.s. quotes from fictitious characters. Too bad the rest of the book didn’t follow the vibe of this one. 

“Parallel And Paradigm” sort of follows the same lines, but is a little more reserved in the satirical department. This one’s by Bobby Abrams, apparently another Fusion writer, and he gives us a rundown of the big events of the ‘60s, leading into a dissertation on the Stones and Altamont. Per the credits he’s got another piece on the Stones in The Age Of Rock II, which I got years ago but still haven’t completely read. (I mostly got it for the Pearlman stuff.) George Paul Csicery returns with a sort of diatribe titled “The Sound Of Marching People.” This proto-The Greening Of America comes off like a lecture as Csicery goes on about anarchy, the government, the environment, and the like…with not one word about the Stones or Altamont. 

Ralph Gleason, famous critic of the day and author of The Jefferson Airplane And The San Francisco Sound, provides a short narration of his experience at Altamont which practically drips with venom. His anger at Jagger is especially pronounced. As if that weren’t enough, we get more anger courtesy an interview that’s conducted with Gleason later in the book. “Mick Jagger is a revolutionary – bullshit! He’s a rich man...I dig his performance, and I dig his music, and I like the album, but that’s all going to be forgotten; I’m the enemy of the Rolling Stones.” Curiously this gradually leads into Gleason’s pronouncement that “God is dead.” And also that Altamont was “Jagger’s super ego trip.” Also curious that none of the other Stones are ever much mentioned…I think there’s like one or two references to Ketih Richards in the entire book. 

There are a few more pieces here, like another first-hand recollection by “Detroit Annie” (who goes unmentioned in the credits), but overall Altamont comes off more like a quick cash-in on “The Forgotten Festival.” I really didn’t learn much from it at all; much more informative was Robert Santelli’s Aquarius Rising, which incidentally listed Eisen’s book in the bibliography. Altamont fails to live up to the “multiple views” promised on the cover, mostly because every single view collected here is the same. Ironically it’s now this book that is forgotten, not Altamont, which has become a buzzword to describe the death of the Woodstock Nation dream (ie “post-Altamont”).

Monday, March 29, 2021

Doomsday Warrior #15: American Ultimatum

Doomsday Warrior #15: American Ultimatum, by Ryder Stacy
February, 1989  Zebra Books

I had a tough time drumming up much enthusiasm for this fifteenth installment of Doomsday Warrior. In the past I’ve said that this series was like an R-rated ‘80s cartoon, but at this point it’s lost the R rating, so it comes off just like a cartoon. A lame ‘80s cartoon at that, like Challenge of the Go-Bots or something. While I’ve applauded Ryder Syvertsens dismissal of reality in the past, American Ultimatum really takes things to ludicrous levels…which itself would be fine if there were more bite to the tale, as there was in the earliest installments. Now everything’s basically G rated. 

It’s three months after the previous volume and as ever Syvertsen picks right up on things without much setting up the scene for series newcomers. The book opens with a prefigure of the goofy stuff we’re going to be encountering throughout the narrative: Colonel Killov, now a “god” in Egypt (which is populated by Egyptians who harken back to Ancient Egypt), wields a sonic wand (the Qu’ul) which emits an antigravity beam…which he uses to raise the Great Sphinx and then carelessly smash it onto the side of the Great Pyramid. The assembled priests – again, all of ‘em decked out in Ancient Egypt finery – wince a little at the destruction but shrug it off given that Killov is the promised god who would fall to them from the skies, as he did in the memorable climax of the previous volume. 

All this of course harkens back to that “goofy cartoon” vibe I keep mentioning…in fact I think there even was an episode of G.I. Joe where the gods of Ancient Egypt actually appeared. And it is very ludicrous, in a (hopefully) intentional way, as if the few past centuries never happened and the Egyptians at heart are just worshippers of animal-headed gods…not to mention that there’s an entire caste of high priests who are privy to all this secret sci-fi weaponry the Ancient Egyptians possessed. But then Syvertsen’s already in another plane of reality, given his off-hand mention that the Sphinx has a nose. In reality it fell off (or was shot off by Napoleon’s men, per the legend) centuries ago. At this point though the element of outrageousness is just old hat, and there’s no bearing of “reality” at all throughout to ground anything…every reader knows the main characters will survive unscathed, and despite what happens in the climax the next one will open with them all safely back at Century City. 

Which is what’s happened this time, of course. We meet Ted “Rock” Rockson, aka the Doomsday Warrior himself, as he’s back in Century City, with no pickup from the previous book…the same sort of series reset that occurs at the opening of every volume. The year is still 2096, and we’re told Rock first arrived at Century City “as a teen” 25 years ago. Periodically Syvertsen will drop references to previous books, telling us how long ago they were – like that Rock flew a MIG “about two years before” (an incident that happened in #9: America's Zero Hour) – but I get the impression he’s just making it up as he goes. I mean it was 2096 in the last volume, and maybe the volume before that, but then maybe 2096 just happens to be an endless year, sort of like 2020 was (and 2021’s shaping up to be). I mean, I’m still trying to cope with how Rock’s still riding the same faithful ‘brid, Snorter, which he’s been riding since the start of the series…despite the fact that he’s lost the damn thing multiple times, with no explanation how he ever gets it back. 

It's almost kind of impressive how Syvertsen sticks to his series template no matter what, sort of like how James Dockery stubbornly did the same thing on The Butcher. Each volume opens with a brief bit of Rock in Century City, then putting his team together (pretty much always the same guys), then leaving Century City to endure some rigorous post-nuke flora, fauna, or weather, and then finally arriving at their destination where Rock will get lucky with a local gal before killing a few Reds. But man this is the fifteenth volume, and we’ve already seen all this happen, uh…let me get my calculator…fifteen times already. At this point it seems pretty evident Syvertsen is just going through the motions. There are none of the fun topical touches even in the Century City sections, other than a previously-unmentioned “Sky Lounge” built high atop the city, a restaurant which affords diners a view of the surrounding mountains. 

This is where Rock takes girlfriend Rona for dinner; it’s her birthday, and once again Rona will be cast aside in the narrative – after that other series template, a roll in the hay with Rock. Which happens off-page, comrades, another indication of the increasing blandness of the series. Gone are the over the top, purple-prosed boinks of the past. As I say, we’re in lame cartoon territory here. And also Rona continues to be minimized; she was once a main character in the series, but now she’s essentially “the girlfriend,” never allowed to go on any of the missions and always stuck back at Century City. This time her going on the mission isn’t even brought up, and last we see of her she’s “bawling” when Rock leaves her bed next morning. And once again Kim, Rock’s other girlfriend, isn’t even mentioned, so I’m sticking with my assumption that we’ll never hear about her again. 

The mission at hand is Rock has received a coded radio broadcast from Rahallah, the African servant of Premiere Vassily in Moscow, ie the ruler of the world. Rock and Rahallah met back in #4: Bloody America, when Rock and team made their way to Russia, and apparently he and Rahallah came up with an agreement that if they ever needed to talk to one another, they would broadcast a code that could be deciphered via a copy of War And Peace. So Rath, the security honcho at Century City, picks up the broadcast, and then there’s the belated realization that there are multiple copies of the book in existence. Thus Rahallah’s code – which is based on certain letters on certain pages – might not be decipherable. However the problem is quickly overcome with “the computer,” and the deciphered code humorously runs two pages…again, there isn’t even the barest attempt at any realism, and the juvenile tone of Syvertsen’s prose doesn’t help add any. 

Rahallah has learned that Killov is alive and well in Egypt, and has come upon some weapons of mass destruction; Rahallah learned this in a mystical way, having seen in a dream his cousin’s African tribe being wiped out by a falling mountain or something. Basically Killov has ancient Egyptian technology which allows him to levitate anything, and he’s throwing mountains and whatnot on various tribes that don’t pledge fealty to him. Rahallah himself will be going to Egypt to put together an army to stop Killov – there’s vague mention that Vassily is too busy with internal riots to send any Russian troops – and he begs Rock to come help him. 

For once Rock doesn’t take the full team; he whittles it down to Chen, Archer, and Sheransky, the latter due to his being Russian and all and thus able to help them steal a MIG and fly it to Egypt. Otherwise Sheransky kind of comes off like a bumbling fool, the red shirt who would typically be killed in an earlier installment. We get the usual “journey through hostile terrain” setup, and Rock and team’s theft of the MIG from a Red airbase is ridiculously easy. Even more ridiculous is that Rock has to quickly read the flight manual to remind himself how to fly the plane! And not only is he able to complete a quick takeoff, but he also manages to pick up Chen and Archer and take out a few fighter jets that are scrambled after them! The plane eventually runs out of gas, conveniently right over Egypt, leading to Rock and pals parachuting into the Nile and fighting a couple sea monsters. 

Eventually they come upon the “Neo-Egyptian Army,” which is decked out in ancient Egyptian finery and the warriors of which ride elephants with lasers on their trunks. (Cue Dr. Evil.) Their leader is even named Tutenkamen. Rahallah, who is among them, explains that it’s a crazy story, “as so many are in our post-nuke world,” which led to the Egyptians of a hundred years before becoming the ancient Egyptian flashbacks of 2096. Whatever; Rock is soon making eyes at lovely “coca-skinned” Neferte, who makes a priority of tending to him. Their inevitable shenanigans occur off-page, it pains me to inform you. More focus is placed on Rock and team learning how to ride those elephants. Then the village is destroyed in a sneak attack of “falling mountains,” courtesy Killov’s Qu’ul; the only thing that can stop Killov’s weaponry is even more advanced ancient Egyptian tech: the “Ra sticks,” which we’re informed are two “levels” beneath “the Cheops pyramids.” Indeed, they are in “the level beneath” the level in which the Qu’ul was discovered! 

But honestly, just try to go along for the intentionally goofy ride, ‘cause later on Rock muses to himself that “just before the Nuke War” a McDonald’s was opened inside Grant’s Tomb, where customers could purchase “The McGrant.” Killov manages to capture Rock, the first the two have been face-to-face in I don’t know how many volumes, but not much is made of it. Instead Killov takes Rock back to his headquarters, aka the Great Pyramid, and puts him on a “sacrificial altar,” threatening to crush him with a six-hundred ton slab of rock, guiding it with the Qu’ul. It gets real goofy here when a “mysterious figure” in a black cloak comes out of the shadows and puts a knife to Killov’s throat, ordering him to move the slab away from Rock. Killov does so, manages to escape…and the “mysterious figure” turns out to be none other than Chen, anticlimactically enough. 

It all leads to a massive battle between Tutenkamen’s men and the “Amun Army,” ie Killov’s Northern Egypt warriors. This takes place along the Aswan Valley, and Syvertsen tries to go for a Biblical finale, with a flood taking everyone out, hero and villain alike. Even Rockson’s fate is left in question. (As if!) We do however, unsurprisingly at that, learn that Killov survives…now with a burning desire to get revenge on Rockson and kill him. This is kind of goofy too, as what else has been fueling Killov all these volumes? Pretty lame. But then “pretty lame” aptly sums up American Ultimatum, surely my least favorite volume yet in the series.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Deadly Deep

The Deadly Deep, by Jon Messmann
May, 1976  Signet Books

Like Marc OldenJon Messmann is another Signet Books author who moved into more “upmarket” fiction once the men’s adventure genre dried out in the mid-‘70s. After The Revenger and the Pyramid Books-published Handyman came to a close, Messmann began publishing one-off mystery and horror novels, this being one of the first of them. The cover blurb, with its reference to “jaws,” rather unsubtly lets you know which particular blockbuster horror novel inspired The Deadly Deep

At 222 pages of small, dense print, the novel is very much in-line with Messmann’s men’s adventure publications, with that same literary vibe where ten words do the job of two. The Deadly Deep is also gloriously, unapologetically “1970s” in its vibe: sex is a prime motivator of practically every situation and all women are referred to as “girls,” their breasts described ad naseum. All this of course is much to the chagrin of the perennially-aggrieved wokesters on Goodreads and Amazon, but it goes without saying that I personally dug it; a refreshing reminder of when books were written – and published – with a male readership in mind. Indeed, the novel’s opening sentence concerns a hotstuff “mistress” suntanning on the deck of a fishing boat deep in the ocean, about to take off her bikini top for the viewing pleasure of the first mate. 

Per the horror novel template, The Deadly Deep begins with a few one-off characters meeting their grisly fates. In short, marine life has run amok and begun attacking humans. The opening sequence, with the babe on the fishing boat, takes place in July 1975 (the rest of the novel spanning the ensuing months), and the “girl” (whose name is Candy!) is the mistress of a professional deep sea fisherman(!). As she suntans on deck, a big blue whale comes out of the Pacific and closes in on the boat, capsizing it. Only Candy survives, clinging to a shard of debris; “She was a survivor, and, as such, she would survive.” (That’s downright Biblical!) Her story is not believed by the authorities, but when a few weeks later a crab fisherman is similarly killed by crazed crabs it would seem that something rotten’s going on in nature. 

This brings us to the hero of the tale, studly ‘70s dude Aran Holder, a freelance science writer. (I assume his name is pronounced “Aaron.”) Again Messmann caters to the ‘70s demand for ruggedly virile protagonists; even though Aran is introduced while merely lying asleep in bed with his girlfriend, Jenny, we’re informed posthaste that the two recently did the deed: “[Jenny’s] moaning screams of ecstasy still seemed to echo in the silence of the cottage.” Curiously though Messmann isn’t as forthcoming with the sleazy details, until later in the novel when he almost randomly delivers a fairly graphic encounter between the two. And as ever it’s very much on the Burt Hirschfeld tip, with that same pseudo-literary vibe when the hanky panky goes down, a la “He moved his tongue through the deep soft-wire mossy triangle.” Talk about the deadly deep! Or my favorite, when Aran gets lucky with another swingin’ chick later in the novel: “She was sensuality…the Circean cup made flesh.” I mean that one’s almost straight out of the Loeb Classical Library. 

The major problem I see with The Deadly Deep – other than the inordinate narrative flab, that is – is Aran Holder himself. For some reason Messmann has chosen to give us a hero who is a freelance science writer, one who occasionally teaches on the side. And this is a tale about sea life going crazy and killing humans. What it needs is a more action-prone hero, like a grizzled ‘Nam SEAL vet or something, or like the dude out of the Sea Quest TV show. Someone who’d be out on the sea battling this threat. In other words, the type of hero you’d encounter if this story had been told a dozen years before in the average men's adventure magazine. But at this point in his career Messmann as mentioned is aiming for a more upscale market, thus his hero is more of a thinker than a doer, and in fact Aran’s major contribution is that he knows people, mostly via features he’s written. 

Otherwise the brunt of the “sea action” is handled by one-off characters who, in many cases, take up a lot more narrative space than necessary. Again, I know it’s part of the horror novel template, but still it bugs me to read several pages of backstory and setup on a character who’s about to meet a grisly fate. Messmann does this throughout, cutting across the globe and introducing sundry characters who make the fatal discovery that the denizens of the deep have now become supremely pissed off at human beings. Messmann gets pretty inventive with the various scenes, with all manner of aquatic attacks: giant squid, killer whales, pirhanas, and even your common everyday cod and other coastal fish. Surprisingly the one marine lifeform he doesn’t much exploit is sharks, probably because he didn’t want to be too on the nose so far as what particular blockbuster inspired this one. 

We see our first couple attacks in July of ’75, from the killer whale to a bunch of crabs eating some guy. Aran hears about this on the radio, vacationing in a seaside cottage in Maryland, and is further pulled into the mystery when his girlfriend, Jenny, is bitten by fish while the two are swimming. (Of course she happens to be topless at the time.) As mentioned Aran’s “skillset” is mainly that he knows people, so he puts in a call to the Fish and Wildlife Service and is eventually put in contact with East Coast boss Emerson Boardman, who works out of Boston. Aran knows Emerson from previous work, so the two already have a rapport. Emerson invites Aran to Boston to help serve as a sort of public relations guy, the setup being that Aran has experience with breaking down highfalutin “science” concepts so that even slackjawed yokels can comprehend them. 

This brings us into what The Deadly Deep will mostly be comprised of: Aran attending a ton of meetings. Meetings with other men, it should go without saying, with no females present other than secretaries, but I don’t want to elaborate too much else they come after Messmann once they’re done cancelling Dr. Seuss. But man, it does sort of go on and on, in particular Aran’s run-ins with a “let’s kill ‘em all” Admiral. Meanwhile Emerson (unfortunately there’s no mention of Lake or Palmer) proves himself incompetent; another horror novel template is the humorously-unecessary death scene, and this duly occurs when Emerson tells his secretary/mistress that it’s safe to go swimming with her girlfriends. When meanwhile there have been fatal fish attacks all over the coasts. This part is particularly unsettling given that the fish rip the girl’s breast off as they attack – I guess the dark side of the whole breast objectification thing. 

Meanwhile Aran shuttles back and forth from Boston to the cottage retreat along the Maryland coast. He again is brought into the dangerous situation in an eerie scene in which a “phalanx” of crabs set upon the area one night. Here too Messmann’s able to work in the ‘70s obsession with sleaze and sex, with the first victims being a married couple who enjoy getting sloshed and having sex on the beach (the literal thing, not the drink). This part also shows a sadly-unexploited hint of dark comedy when the poor woman’s last thought is that she ate crab for dinner! Otherwise Messmann plays it pretty straight throughout; sometimes, as is his wont, a little too straight, with his usual penchant for characters who will spout philosophical quips that would have Descartes stroking his goattee in thought. 

Emerson turns more and more to booze as the situation becomes untenable – the sea has become hazardous to any craft, and given the attack of sea life even the beef industry has to introduce limitations on product – and Aran takes over his role. This of course means more meetings for the reader to endure. There’s a definite focus on eco-concerns, again par for the course in ‘70s sci-fi, with some go-nowhere stuff from a marine biologist that all this might be due to chemical changes in the layers of water that make up the ocean. What initially comes up as yet another red herring turns out to be the prime mover of the narrative: Aran learns that one of his past studies, a “marine life communication” researcher named Evan Taylor, has just committed suicide down at his lab in the Florida Keys. 

Aran keeps wondering why Taylor would do this now of all times. When he goes down to the Keys to investigate he finds, you guessed it, a drunked-up hotstuff babe with “heavy breasts” and an otherwise brick shithouse bod (which is lovingly objectified for us) just waiting all on her horny lonesome for him. Her name is Kay Elliot (which we’re reminded of practically every time she’s mentioned or spoken to – as ever, Messmann has this strange quirk of always referring to minor characters by their full names) and yep, within like a few sentences she’s already propositioning Aran: “Let’s screw all afternoon.” She was Evan Taylor’s assistant (his full name is constantly given, as well) and clearly she’s gone to drink as a sort of security blanket. Aran fends off her amorous advances (he won’t later, though) and heads back to Boston…only to come right back on down when he suddenly remembers that Taylor was researching genetic engineering. All this is curiously modern sounding, with talk about human DNA being implanted in some killer whales and Taylor and colleagues raising the three calves. 

All this Aran finally learns from a sobered-up Kay. It gets kind of goofy here as it turns out that the baby killer whales learned to “talk” to the researchers via a series of panels in their tank, which was channelled off from the ocean. So basically one day, about a year after the implants and etc, the three orcas just didn’t show up anymore…and a few weeks later was the first sealife attack, ie the whale attack that opened the book. It gets super-‘70s quasi-mystical here with talk about Jung of all things, I mean the last thing you’d expect to read…but Messmann’s philosophy-prone characters speculate that “the awakened phylogenetic consciousness of an entire species” (!!) has turned non-killers into killers, as has happened with sea life across the globe. 

But hey, let’s get busy! That’s pretty much the idea that night as Kay, as expected, slinks naked into “the spare room down the hall” where Aran is spending the night. Messmann delivers another of his patented pseudo-literary “what exactly is even happening?” sex scenes, as the two find “respite” in one another. Because meanwhile the world’s gone to hell, Messmann delivering a suitably apocalyptic scenario that only gets worse and worse as the novel progresses. The gung-ho Admiral continues to botch things up, which only leads to more reprisals from the amassed sea creatures, including even a tsunami they manage to create. There’s also “guerrilla warfare” via fish that cling beneath the coastal crusts and venture out to attack oblivious swimmers…people still so obstinate that they’re willing to go to the beach. 

As mentioned though the goofiness really comes to the fore toward the end, to the point that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. So presumably the three DNA-impacted orcas have started this underwater rebellion, the fish deciding to kill mankind. The three orcas occasionally come back to their research pool, so as to taunt their former captors; the reason Kay’s still been down here. Aran gradually learns what really happened to Evan Taylor; the orcas would come to taunt him via those stupid panels, and he went out there on a boat with a gun one day…only to find out the orcas weren’t messing around. Aran’s plan is for Kay to call him as soon as the orcas show up again, and he’ll get a special Navy transport to whisk him down to the Keys to try to reason with the whales. So you see even here, Kay, the original researcher on the project, isn’t even given the opportunity to reason with them! Nor is the opportunity even presented to her. 

But the stupid Admiral strikes again…actually his plan isn’t that dumb. When Kay calls that the orcas have shown up, the Admiral doesn’t send a transport for Aran…but instead sends a couple fighter jets to take the “terrorist leaders” out! However this too fails, ultimately leading to a nicely-done scene in which Aran does indeed have a “talk” with the orcas. He goes out on a boat and carries out a discussion with them on those panels, and here the whales too are even philosophers, turning Aran’s arguments around on him. A nicely-done scene, but also increasingly ridiculous…especially when Aran displays heretofore-unknown badass skills when he sets his boat on fire and jumps out into the sea to swim away from the shocked killer whales. 

At 222 pages of super-small print, you’d think The Deadly Deep would tell a full tale with a satisfactory conclusion, but unbelievably enough the finale’s as ridiculous as the entire premise. SPOILER ALERT so skp to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Well, things have gone from dire to worse, with the entire world in the balance due to the sea attacks; the military has no choice but to nuke various areas so that the entire geography will be redesigned. There are end of the world cults, panic in society, etc. And then, virtually overnight, the attacks just stop. This then plays out with an overdone part where two kids go out fishing one day and don’t have any trouble. Soon enough it is apparent that sea life has gone back to normal. Aran opines that the genetic engineering “expired” and everything’s okay now…but really all this was a “warning” that man should respect other creatures. As if chortling to himself over how ridiculous this is, Messmann ends the tale with a couple yokels excitedly getting into their fishing boats, almost slobbering at the thought of all the fish they’ll catch! 

With a couple Biblical quotes here and there, Messmann clearly tries to convey a “serious” vibe, but really The Deadly Deep is pretty goofy…which by the way isn’t a criticism. If I’m going to read something like this I want it to go over the top. But as mentioned Messmann’s dogged insistence on stretching things out and making them overly “serious” tends to kill the fun. Oh and the uncredited cover art, while cool, turns out to be misleading – unfortunately there is no weird underwater babe who is behind all the attacks. After The Deadly Deep Messmann turned out a few mysteries, then some Westerns under a house name or two. The book features a bio of him, which I thought was pretty cool, if only because this might be the most we ever know about the guy: