Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Butcher #8: Fire Bomb

The Butcher #8: Fire Bomb, by Stuart Jason
October, 1973  Pinnacle Books

This time I’ll try skip my usual belabored overview of how this volume of The Butcher sticks to the same repetitive theme as the previous installments, with only the most minor of variations. Instead I’ll just bluntly say that at this point James “Stuart Jason” Dockery’s series is becoming almost a chore to read, with each volume coming off like a lazy rewrite of one that came before.

So we open, as always, with Bucher in some unstated city, being trailed by a pair of Syndicate goons out for the bounty on his head. These parts are always my favorite in the series, but Dockery doesn’t get as outrageous this time, other than that one of the goons goes by the handle Rum Dum Lagoona, but Bucher knows his real name is Percival Pinkham. Other than that it’s the usual “kill quick or die” from Bucher, who guns both down without breaking a sweat…on to the customary jail scene, followed by the customary “out of jail” scene thanks to some calls behind the scenes. This time we don’t get the customary “illegal for Jesus Christ to own” line about Bucher’s silencer, though.

Bucher’s already on his assigmnet: trying to figure out how big shipments of heroin are getting into the country. As ever it has something to do with a Syndicate bigwig he knew years before, when he too was a Syndicate bigwig. This one’s named Johnny Procetti and his nickname’s “Fireball” because he likes to douse women in gasoline and light ‘em up. And also we get “foreshadowing” that the plot will make its customary left turn midway through; Bucher just happens to see in the paper that some people in Mexico and the Southwest are coming down with radiation burns, and something in the back of his head is alerted by the news, though he ignores it. Of course, this will be brazenly shoehorned into the main plot before novel’s end.

First stop is Reno, where Bucher storms his way into a bar owned by another Syndicate associate of years past. He and Procetti were once pals but now the sleazebag reveals that he has a hit out on Procetti and hasn’t seen him in months. Bucher for some bizarre reason takes off immediately upon learning this, but runs into the “dowdy” hostess he just got fired from the bar, the owner pissed off that she allowed the Butcher to get past security. Her name is Anna Helm and she claims to know where Procetti is, but will only tell Bucher if she can come along: her sister was firebombed by Procetti and Anna wants revenge.

Bucher as ever is all business, even after Anna is revealed to be a smokin’ hot, built babe, whose “dowdiness” was really just a disguise. She claims it was defense against the notoriously-lecherous bar owner. As ever though Dockery does not exploit his female characters in the least; he refers to them in almost a romantic poetry vibe, with little of the “upthrusting” or “curvy” or even “jiggling” that this genre demands. And while Bucher is gobsmacked by this beauty to the point he doesn’t even realize it’s the same Anna Helm he agreed to bring along, he promptly gets back to worrying over the case, with absolutely zero thought on how to get her into bed posthaste.

The trip to Mexico is over in a few pages, only lasting long enough for Bucher to run into a quartet of infamous Syndicate hitmen who are humorously built up as being the most dangerous, vile group of killers in history – and then are casually dispatched by Bucher in just a few sentences. More importantly, here Bucher briefly runs into Blood Red Sal, an old Syndicate flame of his whose nickname comes from her penchant for eating raw meat to preserve her beauty. This bit goes nowhere other than for Sal to inform Bucher that Procetti is likely in Iraq – so in other words, once again Bucher is headed for the Middle East.

Here in Baghdad Bucher gets wind of the infamous Hashashin, aka those favorites of pulp writers everywhere – the mystical order of hash-lovin’ assassins who in Medieval times were sent out by the Old Man of the Mountain. Well, they’re back in business, and an always-masked personage dubbed “Ibn Wahid” is their mysterious leader. Bucher learns all about it thanks to Karamene, hotstuff mistress of disguise who, along with her brother, operates for White Hat here in Baghdad. Once again Karamene is described in terms having more to do with grace and beauty, and Bucher finds himself falling for her, to the point where he thinks he might be in love. Whoever guesses what happens to Karamene wins a no-prize.

Meanwhile Bucher does believe it or not get laid; Anna Helm has been throwing herself at him relentlessly, and Bucher finally gives in…and, as ever, the incident happens entirely off page. This is bad enough, but what’s worse is the lazy plotting Dockery presents us with; shortly after this Bucher remembers that Karamene had translated a message from White Hat for him – Bucher just put the note in his pocket and forgot all about it. Well, he remembers finally, reads it…and this letter he’s had all along in his friggin’ pocket tells him who Ibn Wahid is, what the plan is, and etc! And if he’d read the note a few chapters before certain characters would still be alive.

What’s crazy is Dockery is a fine writer, at least in his dialog and bizarre characters. But man he needed some help with plotting. Or who knows, maybe The Butcher was intended as a satire, one played so dead straight that no one noticed? Even if that’s so, the dude could’ve at least come up with something new each volume. As it is, Fire Bomb is nearly a direct ripoff of  #4: Blood Debt, even down to the “surprise” reveal of the main villain’s identity (and gender) – someone Bucher has become “close” to. But then, Bucher already knows who Ibn Wahid thanks to that note, thus the removal of the villain’s mask isn’t a shock to him. The strangest thing is that it’s mentioned here that Bucher’s never killed a woman, even though he did way back in #3: Keepers Of Death, where we were told it was the first one he’d ever killed.

I was really digging this series when I started it, but now it’s looking more like the later ones by Michael Avallone – of which I’ve only read one so far, #34: The Man From White Hat – might be better. Dockery’s stubborn insistence on sticking to the same damn plot, over and over with only slight variations, is quickly sinking The Butcher. Seriously, if you’ve read one you’ve read them all.

 Here’s the last paragraph:

Then slowly he turned from the scene of violence and death, turned toward the helicopter beside the runway a few yards distant, the weary slump in his shoulders more pronounced and the bitter-sour taste of defeat strong in his mouth.

Monday, September 16, 2019


Omerta, by Peter McCurtin
No month stated, 1972  Leisure Books

The last standalone Mafia novel Peter McCurtin published before turning his efforts to The Marksman and The Sharpshooter, Omerta is, per Lynn Munroe, pretty scarce today. This is too bad, as the novel, running a brisk 150-some pages, is a fast-moving slice of crime pulp, lacking the polish of some of McCurtin’s other standalone thrillers but not as grungy as his Marksman yarns.

Actually it’s pretty grungy at the start; McCurtin seems to be setting a goal for how often the word “fuck” can appear on a single page – it’s used in dialog and narrative and has the entusiastic ring of a fifteen year-old boy who’s just learned how to curse. Humorously though it disappears for a stretch before returning toward novel’s end. But man it’s all over the place at the start of the book, almost lending the novel a proto-Jerky Boys vibe. And truth be told, “hero” Lorenzo “Larry” Collino at times comes off like one of Johnny Brennan’s brash, foul-mouthed personas.

Collino is 42 and a third-generation mafioso; his grandfather started in the family as a torpedo for Don Francesco, now an old wheelchair-bound codger who lives in a fortress-mansion. Collino often relfects on his grandfather, who was a hot-tempered enforcer for the family; Collino the third is much like him, whereas Collino’s dad wasn’t as tough, and ended up getting killed years ago. Collino works the Manhattan area and, unlike the typical protagonist of this sort of tale, he’s a happily-married father of two prepubescent boys.

When we meet him Collino’s on a job for the Don; he’s spent the past several weeks in frustrating pursuit of a French coke dealer named Jacopetti, who is cutting in on the family’s territory. This engenders the F-bomb onslaught which initiates the novel; Collino’s royally pissed over this time-consuming task, as Jacopetti has holed up somewhere in Manhattan. But Collino’s gotten word on a restaurant Jacopetti frequents, and has staked the place out. He collars him, pretends to be a cop, takes him to some desolate location, and kills him – this after Jacopetti swears that the five million dollars worth of cocaine he brought over is already on the streets.

Here’s where Collino starts to get even more Jerky Boys-ish. He heads over to the bar he owns in Brooklyn and gets drunk. This was probably my favorite part of the book, as McCurtin populates the bar with some Bowery Bum types, including an old guy who works as a moritician but spends his nights getting wasted in Collino’s bar. The drunk mortician’s known for his biting tongue, and tonight Collino’s not in the mood for it; he beats the old man up after a few drinks, then later wonders what’s gotten into him.

This appears to be the theme of Omerta, that Collino is slowly losing control of himself. Despite often reflecting that he’s 42 and past all the “macho stuff,” he acts with savagery throughout the book, unable to control his temper. When Garafalo, the Don’s second in command and one of Collino’s enemies in the family, calls to ask about the hit, Collino basically tells him to go to hell. This sets off the incidents that will lead to the novel’s grim finale, all because a drunk Collino can’t watch his mouth. But then, we also learn late in the novel that things have been going on behind the scenes without Collino’s knowledge, so this throws the presumed “theme” out of whack: Collino’s in trouble whether he keeps his mouth open or closed.

Next day Collino’s called to the Don’s mansion, where the old man grills him on the hit. The cops have it that the five million bucks in coke are not on the street, so the old man is “just checking” to ensure Collino didn’t nab it from Jacopetti before killing him. Collino insists on his innocence but refuses to swear on the lives of his children, as Don Francesco requests. The Don, passing all this off as “just business,” tells Collino that the family will be checking on him over the next few days, etc. In other words, to spy on him to see if he does indeed have the coke.

Instead of going along with it, Collino instead bulldozes his way across the New York underworld, determined to find out what happened to that five million he’s been blamed for stealing. Meanwhile he pines occasionally for his wife and kids – and all three of them, by the way, stay off-page for the duration of the novel. The most we see of them is late in the game when Collino calls up his brother in law, another Italian immigrant and a Korean War vet who hates the commies, and tells him to come get his wife and kids and take them out of town for their safety. Collino watches from afar as the three are rounded up by his brother in law (who comes wielding a rifle) and driven off, content that they’ll be safe.

For it becomes clear as Omerta races for its conclusion that Collino himself is not safe. Mobsters tail him wherever he goes, and he doesn’t do much to stay on the Don’s good graces. He leads one of his tails into a gay bar, and when the dude follows Collino into the john Collino beats the shit out of him – and speaking of shit, he proceeds to jam the guy’s face into a backed-up toilet. As the novel continues Collino carries out more of these impromptu bursts of violent savagery, even randomly murdering a hapless clerk in some slummy hotel.

Otherwise on the action front there isn’t much in the way of shootouts or anything. In that gay bar Collino has stashed a .38 automatic – he’s stashed a few guns around the city – but he only uses it on two unarmed opponents. McCurtin goes for more of a mounting suspense vibe, with Collino feeling increasingly cornered as he shuttles around Manhattan. In the homestretch we realize we’re in for the mandatory downbeat ending of the ‘70s, as Collino learns it’s been a setup from the start. However I had a hard time understanding why exactly Collino even was set up.

Actually the finale is total ‘70s paranoia, and I’ll only go into spoilers here because the book is apparently scarce. For some baffling reason, Collino goes back to his home once his wife and kids have been taken safely away. He has some more drinks and eventually notices a car sitting in front of his house – no doubt some enforcers coming for him. Then the FBI calls, tells him they’ve just learned he’s about to be killed(!), and Collino agrees to turn state’s evidence in exchange for safety for his family and himself. But when the FBI guys show up and send off the enforcers, they take Collino to a remote location…where he’s to be shipped off to South America, to be tortured and killed by Jacopetti’s brother!

McCurtin handles the story with skill, keeping it fast-moving and tension-filled. My only issue was with Collino. One the one hand we’re told he’s happy, content, but on the other he acts like a nutjob, doing stuff even he himself doesn’t understand. In point of fact it just seems like the character is being yanked around by the demands of the plot. But in its short running time Omerta delivers a solid slice of Mafia pulp…though to be honest I kept waiting for Magellan to show up and start blowing these goons away.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

MIA Hunter #9: Invasion U.S.S.R.

MIA Hunter #9: Invasion U.S.S.R., by Jack Buchanan
April, 1988  Jove Books

MIA Hunter ventures into uncharted territory with this ninth installment, which sees a return of the same authors from the previous volume: Arthur Moore and Stephen Mertz. But in many ways Invasion U.S.S.R. seems to be from another series entirely, replacing the Southeast Asian POW-rescuing adventures of the earlier volumes with a sort of sub-Ludlum Cold War thriller. I found the results decidedly mixed.

For one, there is a bit of continuity, which makes me assume series editor Stephen Mertz was taking a firmer hand; the early volumes rarely if ever referred to each other. Here we have a reminder that Stone and team (Texan Hog Wiley and Brit Terrence Loughlin) are now employed by the government, thanks to the efforts of Senator Harler. Rather than illegally going into ‘Nam and neighborhood to rescue American POWs, they now go around the world to rescue captured American notables. Not technically MIAs, then, which makes Hog’s announcement, “We’re the MIA hunters” late in the novel sound a bit forced.

This time an American journalist who moonlights for the CIA is captured in Moscow. His name is Lee Daniels and the authors pad some of the pages with cutovers to his plight; this is another hallmark of previous volumes but Daniels seems to get a lot more attention. Unfortunately I found his story, which has him shuffled around this or that Russian sanitarium and grilled by this or that Russian flunkie, to be a bit tiresome.

I wanted action, baby – and shockingly, for a series known for big action scenes – Invasion U.S.S.R. is a bit lackluster in that department. It is for the most part a slow-moving thriller in which Stone and team are relegated to using pistols instead of their customary assault rifles. That being said, the author(s) do a better job of bringing the main characters to life, especially Loughlin; whereas he was a terse cipher previously, now he has a gift for sarcastic retorts. (And I still think there’s buried subtext that the dude’s gay – just sayin.’)

Stone, Hog, and Loughlin are called in by Harler to accompany him as “security” on a trip to Moscow. Their real goal will be to secretly find Daniels and exfiltrate him from whatever secret location the damn commies have him stashed away in. We get a bit of humor here with wily Hog (clever pun alert) chafing at the attempts to make him look respectable, complete with haircut, suit, and tie. The result, per Stone, “looks like a wrestler on his day off.” After this though, other than the occasional Hog-Loughlin banter, it’s a mostly humorless and dry affair.

It’s all very, uh, different, as Stone is suddenly meeting with embassy personnel and in-country CIA agents. As stated it just seems like a completely different series. The random action scenes still appear, a little less frequently, but they aren’t as overdone as the ones in the ‘Nam adventures. In fact it seems like Loughlin is forever stealing a car and the trio are sneaking away on the darkened streets after some random firefight with their appropriated pistols. It’s like the author(s) wanted to do a fairly realistic Cold War spy story while at the same time accomodating the action quotient required by the men’s adventure genre. For example, soon enough Hog is shooting helicopters out of the sky, something we’re told he’s quite good at.

The team gets in action posthaste, going off to meet with their CIA contact but walking into an ambush. This is just the first of many following sequences in which the boys get in a firefight, Loughlin hotwires a car, and they get away from the encroaching KGB. This happens so many times I started to suspect it was a subtle attempt at humor, and possibly it was. Stone and team don’t really integrate well into the shadow war mindset; they make cursory attempts at maintaining secrecy but keep getting in brief skirmishes with roving KGB patrols, making their getaway in stolen cars. Strangely neither Senator Harler nor the embassy folks get much frustrated by this, and just meet the team’s frequent requests for info, contacts, or more guns.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of sexual material – in the men’s adventure of the ‘80s, only the protagonists of  post-nuke pulps got laid. The protagonists of regular men’s adventure were too busy checking their guns and stuff to mess around with womenfolk. But we at least get the promise of it – first Stone’s put in contact with a pretty female agent based in Moscow named Rima…who doesn’t do anything but cook for them. Later when the action moves to Moscow they’re put in line with Anna, a hotstuff Swedish agent whose ample charms are much admired by Stone and team…but there’s absolutely nothing in the way of sexual hijinks. The idea is so remote that it isn’t even mentioned.

For the most part Invasion U.S.S.R. concerns “the MIA hunters” going around Moscow, trying to find leads on Daniels, and always being one step behind the KGB force that has him. Late in the game the action moves to Leningrad, but even here it continues in the same pace as the Moscow material: they meet up with some local CIA agents, sneak around the city, get in brief skirmishes, hotwire a car, and make their getaway. The action promises to expand when the team is captured by the cunning KGB officer who has Daniels, Stone and team walking into yet another ambush, but Anna manages to free them within a few pages.

The big fireworks are saved for the finale, in which Daniels is finally located inside a sanitarium-fortress near Leningrad. But whereas the previous books would feature Stone and team hitting the base with some native soldiers backing them up, this time they follow a goofy, pseudo-Mission: Impossible scenario: they let themselves get arrested so that they’re put in the sanitarium’s jail, and then they try to figure out a way to break both themselves and Daniels out. What’s worse, there isn’t even a final comeuppance for the KGB officer who has taken up so much of the narrative.

Despite being 180-some pages, Invasion U.S.S.R. seems to be longer. Even though the writing is fine, with a clear attempt at conveying suspense and tension, the book just seems sluggish at times. I’m assuming this one was just a misfire and the series will get back on track, but I do feel that this new angle with Stone’s team being a rescue unit isn’t panning out very well. I mean there has to be at least a few POWs they could look for in ‘Nam…

Monday, September 9, 2019

Death Of An Informer

Death Of An Informer, by Will Perry
November, 1974  Pyramid Books
(Original Pyramid edition July, 1973)

First published by Pyramid in 1973, Death Of An Informer received this ’74 reprint after winning an Edgar for best paperback mystery. After that it seems to have fallen off the map, as you can’t find much about it online. This is too bad, as the novel is very much in the vein of sleazy ‘70s crime fiction I enjoy, with the caveat that there’s hardly any action in it – I mean I was at least expecting a shootout or two, but about the most that happens is a guy gets pushed into the path of an oncoming train.

Will Perry was the pseudonym of a British reporter named W.J. Weatherby who was based in New York for many years and apparently covered the black community extensively. Thus there is a sense of authenticity to Death Of An Informer, which solely focues on the blacks who frequent “The Block,” ie the stretch of Forty-Second Street which runs between Seventh and Eight Avenues in Mahnattan. This is a “hell” (per the hyperbolic back cover copy) of strip clubs, hookers, pimps, hustlers, drug dealers, and everything else you could imagine, and in many ways the novel is a time capsule of a place and an era long gone. If I were to write a novel set in ‘70s Manhattan, I’d surely use this book for topical details.

This certainly isn’t a pulp crime novel, though. Weatherby seems to be shooting for the big leagues, and I’d say the novel has more in common with contemporary bestsellers like Report To The Commissioner than pulp paperbacks like, say, A Piece Of Something Big. But man, it still could’ve used at least a little action; Death Of An Informer really is a mystery, for the most part, so it didn’t win that Edgar by accident. It’s just that the sleazy inner-city setting cries out for more of a pulp-crime sort of yarn, particularly given how well Weatherby brings to life the lurid atmosphere of depravity and decadence.

It is odd though that the book was afforded such acclaim because its characters would have been considered very taboo at the time: gay black cocaine dealers. Well, not all of them are gay, but it’s implied that they all switch hit. And also one of the characters is white, but he’s also a drug dealer, and he’s also gay, and in fact he has a “sickness” for black men. This would be Charles De Gaulle Tyler, the “informer” of the title, whose death is promised on the very first page of the book; the novel opens on what will be his “last day.”

Tyler is 24, an army vet, born and raised in the south by less-than-understanding rich parents. We learn in brief flashbacks that even as a boy Tyler would go off to “consort” with the black men his family employed on their estate; one of his deepest relationships happened in the stockade while he was in the army, with a young black man named Boy Ronnie. Your classic “it happened one night in the stockade” sort of affair. When Tyler came to New York years later he ran into Boy Ronnie again; Ronnie was part of an all-black coke dealing gang, and their boss, a hat-wearing teenager dubbed The Kid, decided to give Tyler a job – as a white man, one of a privileged background, Tyler would be better suited to dealing with the gang’s Park Avenue clientelle.

We actually don’t get much detail on the cocaine business; the Kid keeps everything to himself, running the operation out of a hotel room. In addition to Tyler and Boy Ronnie, the gang is comprised of Sweetboy, Leroy, and Groove. We’re brought into all this by the reflections of Tyler as he goes about what will be his last day, dropping off coke to a few customers and bumping into Sweetboy, whom he has a crush on. Tyler considers himself a chronicler of the Block and thus large portions of the narrative are given over to his rhapsodies about this or that landmark or establishment; again, the book is very much a time capsule, even more so than the Len Levinson novels of the era because it is so focused on capturing the time and the place. In some ways it bears a similarity to Joyce’s Ulysses, if only in its similarity to Joyce’s declaration that his novel could be used to rebuild Dublin.

When Tyler goes back to the Kid’s hotel, he finds himself walking into a frosty reception – even Boy Ronnie refuses to meet his eye. It turns out Sweetboy has been arrested and Tyler was the last person to see him. As the only white man in the gang, Tyler is instantly suspect number one. He pleads his innocence, but panics and manages to escape. The rest of this section of the book concerns Tyler’s desperate attempt to get off the Block. Weatherby masterfully shows how this once-fantastical place has now become nightmarish for Tyler, and of course he can’t expect any help from the average New Yorker.

Grindhouse enthusiasts will appreciate the references to the plentiful moviehouses on Forty-Second; Tyler passes them by, but doesn’t even have a dime on him so can’t escape inside one for a few hours. Instead he finds his way into a bookstore, where he runs into Boy Ronnie – who tries to help him. However when Tyler tries to use the subway token Ronnie’s gotten for him, someone rushes up behind him and pushes him into the path of the train. All we know, from the testimony of the train driver, is that the assailant was black. The mystery of who killed Tyler is the main plot.

At this point Boy Ronnie becomes our protagonist. The literary asperations that peppered Tyler’s section are gone; Ronnie can barely read, and whereas Tyler at least had an apartment – cockroach-ridden as it was – Ronnie lives on the street, taking “baths” in the sink at the Port Authority and occasionally washing his few clothes at the Kid’s hotel. He’s 21, a former boxer, with a savage knife scar; we learn that he had an affair with his trainer’s wife, and nearly got killed for it. Instead, he lost the ability to box, so now he makes his living dealing coke for the Kid.

Ronnie is one of the switch-hitters on the gang; he had that affair with Tyler in the stockade years ago, but in the novel itself his sexual interests are demonstrated on a blonde girl. I should mention that the novel is not explicit in the least; none of the sex scenes, whether they be gay or straight, are at all detailed. In fact, when Ronnie goes to a grungy hotel with the blonde, he finds himself unable to rise to the occasion, bummed over Tyler’s plight. Later Ronnie has a second chance with the girl, and this time succeeds, but Weatherby leaves the scene off page.

As with Tyler we get the occasional digression into Boy Ronnie’s background, and here we learn the meaning behind his bizarre name; he informs the blonde that in the smalltown in which he grew up there was also a little girl named Ronnie. Thus he became “Boy” Ronnie to the others, and the nickname stuck. But this is a ‘70s New York of colorful nicknames and even more colorful wardrobes, so Ronnie doesn’t much stick out. In fact he thinks other people are weird, like a friend of his who is a would-be pimp, going about in wild fashion and looking for a new stable, despite the wife and kid he has waiting for him back home in the subburbs.

I was under the impression that with the narrative switching from the effete Tyler to the macho Ronnie we’d have an increase in the action quotient. However I was wrong. Ronnie mostly walks around the Block and ponders Tyler’s diary, which he discovered in Tyler’s apartment after searching it per the Kid’s instructions. There is though a nicely-done sequence where Ronnie runs into Tyler’s father, come here from New Orleans to collect his son’s body. The old southerner is numb with grief, to the point that he’s even willing to talk to this black man who claims to have known his son. Weatherby displays the casual racism of the older generations in a nicely subtle way, not banging us over the head with it as such a scene would be rendered today.

When the Kid is finally able to speak to Sweetboy through a lawyer, the Kid learns that Tyler couldn’t have been the informer; as mentioned the Kid keeps the workings of his coke business secret, so that his dealers aren’t privy to each other’s work. Sweetboy was caught by the cops while on a run Tyler couldn’t have known about, thus he was innocent – and shouldn’t have been killed, Ronnie argues. But neither the Kid nor the others care too much about Tyler’s loss. The Kid suspects Groove, and Ronnie is dispatched to round him up – more inexplicit lurid stuff where Groove first goes home with some white dude he just met and Ronnie waits patiently in the foyer for them to screw in the bedroom.

Ronnie feels himself becoming more distant from his “friends” in the gang, to the point that the Kid tells Ronnie to leave as the Kid and Leroy torture Groove – who swears he isn’t a snitch. Frustratingly, the novel seems to be headed for some action just as it comes to a close; Ronnie, adrift on Forty-Second, finds himself in one of those movie theaters as a Western is playing, and there sit the Kid and Leroy a few aisles in front of him. Ronnie immediately realizes which of them is the true informant, and sees himself as the sheriff who is about to take out the bad guy. And here the novel ends!

Weatherby’s writing is strong throughout, with a gift for capturing mood, character, and location. He also nearly succeeds in passing himself off as an American author. Only the occasional gaffe betrays his British background, such as minor things like, “He looked round the room.” Americans don’t look “round” anything – we look around them. And these inner-city black Americans tend to say “quite” a bit too much to be believable, but again, this is nothing major. However, I didn’t even realize “Will Perry” was a pseudonym until I subconsciously detected something “British” about the prose. 

While Death Of An Informant won the Edgar and got this second printing, I don’t see any other reprints and it appears that Weatherby’s few other novels, all bearing the “Will Perry” by-line, didn’t receive as much critical attention. They also appear to be relatively rare, at least judging from prices on the used books marketplace.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Vigilante #5: Detroit: Dead End Delivery

The Vigilante #5: Detroit: Dead End Delivery, by V.J. Santiago
December, 1976  Pinnacle Books

I suspect Robert Lory was getting a little fatigued with The Vigilante; Detroit: Dead End Delivery lacks the fire and brimstone of the previous volumes, and shows evidence of a series increasingly losing its way. Whereas the first volume established nutcase “hero” Joe Madden as a merciless dispenser of justice, cleaning the streets of scum, this fifth volume comes off like a ‘70s take on hardboiled pulp, with Madden acting more like a private eye.

It’s about a week after the previous volume, and this installment marks five weeks since the events of the first volume. As Madden reflects to himself, he’s done some serious work in those few weeks, killing 42 scumballs. Lory at least sticks to the template he’s devised, with a sort of introductory action scene of Madden blowing someone away on the streets of the latest city he’s visiting, but here we already get indication that Dead End Delivery is going to be a bit more sluggish. Lory spends much too long introducing the one-off character Madden saves from a hooker-mugger team who intends to knife the guy in an alley, until Madden appears in trench coat and wide brim hat and blows them away.

All this is well and good, but the thing is, Lory spends so much time on this one-off character’s plight that the actual justice-dispensing is basically skirted over. That being said, Madden again shows his viciousness in blowing away the woman who has lured the would-be victim out onto the street; this is the fourth woman Madden’s killed, not that it causes him to lose much sleep. And really that’s it for the “vigilante” stuff of the book. I really do think Lory had gotten bored with the series concept at this point, as he comes up with a storyline that has nothing to do with the previous four volumes – even the subplot about the New York cop who might’ve figured out Madden’s game is dropped this time.

Madden’s come to Detroit to accept an award for his firm; none of the previous volumes have dwelt too much on Madden’s day job (wisely), but this one’s humorous in how quickly it’s passed off. Madden’s there to accept the award and leaves the luncheon as soon as he’s given his speech! Meanwhile he’s decided to stay in Detroit a few days, as the night before, after killing the would-be muggers, he bumped into an old friend at a bar: Stan Hart. Hart’s in trouble and wants Madden’s help – the implication is that Hart must detect some innate quality in Madden’s steel-eyed, scar-faced visage which screams: “I can help you.”

Hart’s story goes that he’s working on a top-secret auto engine plan, and someone keeps stealing his plans. He suspects Tander, his boss at the firm, of being behind the thefts. He’s gotten so nervous that he’s hired a grungy P.I. named Voll and he’s also told his wife and kid to leave town. He doesn’t elaborate what exactly he hopes Madden can do to help him; for all he knows, Madden’s just an engineer. But again, the intimation is that the scarred face Madden now sports lets people know he can handle dirty jobs.

And it is a dirty job, as next morning Madden finds out Stan Hart took a head-dive out of his corporate office. It was clearly murder, but staged to look like suicide…and if it’s deemed so, Hart’s family won’t get a dime of insurance money. This Madden learns when he visits Hart’s widow, and finds Hart’s boss Tander also there. Madden realizes that Hart was right in his suspicion; Tander is indeed behind the blueprint thefts and he probably also killed Hart. Of course Madden will be proven correct, and we get more indication of the somewhat padded nature of the novel with too many sequences from Tander’s point of view, how he’s stealing the plans to make it big, selling them to some Mafia thugs.

But then it’s kind of padded throughout; I mean there’s a part where Madden goes to the downtrodden building in which P.I. Voll offices out of, and we get copious description of the place’s fa├žade and bedgraggled appearance. It’s all nicely written, sure, but isn’t what this genre demands. I mean, I know it had to be a drag to turn in men’s adventure novels several times a year, toiling under a house name with no critical attention, but still…to me, it would be a simple matter to fill the pages, despite the author’s boredom. Your character is a vigilante? Then put him on the street and have him gun down some criminals!! I mean it isn’t rocket science, is it? And personally I would’ve rather read random snatches of Madden gunning down street-dwelling punks instead of the half-baked, low-simmer yarn Lory’s given us.

Action is minimal because it turns out this is all Madden’s up against…sniveling coporate ladder-climber Tander. We aren’t exactly talking about a supervillain here. The only person he’s got at his disposal is a hitman he hired; Madden has a brief firefight with the guy in Hart’s office, but doesn’t exact revenge until later in the novel. Lory has to come up with arbitrary action scenes to meet his quota, like three young punks who accost Madden on the street one night as he waits to ambush Tander. This sequence, even if arbitrary, reminds us of the cold brutality of our hero; he guns the three down almost as an afterthought, despite their pleadings.

Even the lurid stuff is minimized; Tander has a hotstuff wife, and the implication seems clear that Madden will have sex with her, per the ‘70s men’s adventure template. When the expected scene happens, Lory initially appears to be catering to the template; Madden goes to Tander’s house during business hours, while Tander is in the office, and storms inside wearing a ski mask. And naturally sexy Irene Tander is only wearing a nightie at the time. But even here Lory gussies it up with overdone plotting; Madden bullshits the girl into thinking he has the “real” documents Tander’s been looking for and will let her share in the profit, at her husband’s expense. To prove her trustworthiness, Irene treats Madden to a dual blowjob-handjob…no doubt the only moment in literary history in which oral sex is compared to a symphonic movement.

But that’s it…Madden doesn’t do anything else with her. At leat here we get a laugh-out-loud reminder of Madden’s increasing psychosis; after Irene has finished her oral ministrations, Madden momentarily considers blowing her head off right then and there! Instead he strings her along, and ultimately sends her to Voll’s office, framing her for the private eye’s murder. This part’s hard to buy, given that the guy’s been dead for a day or two at this point, but Madden gives the cops an anonymous tip and siccs them on her just as she’s entered the office, and last we hear Irene’s under arrest.

It’s clear though that we are far removed from the series concept at this point. Instead of cleaning up the scummy streets of Detroit, Madden dicks around with Tander, determined to prove Stan Hart was murdered and didn’t commit suicide. More interesting is the subplot: Dead End Delivery opens with a Mafia underling named Vincent Bell getting the word out to the various families to be on the lookout for a guy named “Joe” with a scarred face, sending out the police sketch made of Madden in the previous volume. This promises some thrills, but when Madden runs into the chief Mafia thug here in Detroit the guy swears he won’t tell anyone that “Joe” is in Motor City.

There’s only one more volume to go, and if this one’s any indication I suspect Lory won’t be wrapping anything up. But I would’ve preferred more about this than the “A” plot, with all the Maguffin stuff about the auto engine plans and whatnot. Lory sees it through, though, with brief action scenes as Madden takes out the occasional hitman or Mafia thug. There’s nowhere near the action level of previous books, though – not that this series was ever action-packed – and the finale follows suit, with Madden luring Tander into a fitting end: falling to his death, just as Hart did.

Well, next time Madden heads to D.C., and hopefully the last volume will be better than this one. In the meantime, here’s a contemporary interview I found with Lory, from 1973, which also features a few words from his mother!

Monday, September 2, 2019

To Kill A Snowman

To Kill A Snowman, by Charles Miron
No month stated, 1978  Manor Books

It looks like after Airport Cop failed to get off the ground (clever pun alert) Charles Miron went on to publish several standalone crime novels for Manor Books…crime novels with some of the most psychedelic narrative you’ll encounter anywhere. Seriously folks, halfway through To Kill A Snowman it occurred to me that I had no idea what the hell was going on.

First of all, the cover art implies that this novel has something to do with heroin, but in fact it’s about coke smuggling, as evidenced by the title. I was hoping for a Cocaine-inspired sleazy ‘70s crimefest set on the mean streets of New York, but To Kill A Snowman actually takes place in…Sweden. This is just our first example of how skewed Mr. Miron is…not to mention that the plot, such as it is, is sort of ripped off from a subplot in his earlier Death Flight: a struggling filmmaker uses a coke deal to finance a movie. I mean, that’s what the plot’s supposed to be about. What actually happens in the book is a different matter.

For one, I don’t think Miron ever even informs us where in Sweden the novel opens; initially I thought it was taking place in Copenhagen, which of course is in a different country. Finally though “Sweden” emerges as the locale, and it would appear Miron must’ve visited the place, as he peppers the narrative with egregious references to Swedish words, places, and cuisine. Our hero is Jeff, a young American fillmmaker who has come here to Sweden because…honestly I don’t know why the hell he’s here. Apparently there’s like a screening of an unfinished documentary he made, or something like that…really, just like with the Airport Cop books, I spent the entirety of the novel feeling a sort of contact high, so a lot of the “plot” escaped me.

The novel opens with Jeff attempting to rip off some coke dealers, working with Lena, his Swedish girlfriend. If I understood it correctly, and I’m not sure I did, the plan is for Jeff and Lena to act as couriers for other buyers, but they intend to take the coke for themselves and sell it. I think. But Lena, after picking up the cocaine, doesn’t show at their prearranged meeting place, and Jeff starts to suspect he’s been had. Spoiler note for anyone who attempts to read this damnable book: Lena won’t return. I mean you’d think it would be a given that Jeff would have a reunion with her, at least for revenge, but nope – that’s not how Charles Miron rolls. I mean folks you can’t expect basic storytelling elements when your author turns out prose like this:

Wet film flooded over [Ulla’s] perfect marble-shaped eyes. “Puries” Jeff called them when he knelt as a kid outside round circles in the dirt where potfulls of gaily speckled globollas lay waiting to be knocked out from a three-finger heist.

What does that even mean?? Or how about:

Who understands the phalarope, his dreams or flights of fancy? Now [Jeff] drove masochistically through the nutcracker drill, football’s two-on-one suicide formation propelling a lone ballcarrier between a pair of Neanderthal shoulders with no necks, only blind desire to bust head, claw inside his birdcage face mask, using callous stumps for hammers, gouging his eyes before the body fell limply forward. 

“Girl, open your eyes, the ones you closed everytime we made love. Touch me, a bit of a user, selfish, but Christ, not the shadow of anyone’s mind blowing incomplete man.” 

Ulla watched as Jeff nervously picked loose skin from the corner of his cuticle. She tried remembering intimate details [her old boyfriend] Jurgen had left outside his window for her. Back of the hand over his left eyelid, as if the sun always shone too brightly for him.

Mind you, that’s exactly how those three paragraphs appear in the book – I mean that’s in sequence. And it’s like this through the book. Soon enough it devolves into a near-psychotic blur of senseless narrative. And speaking of psychotic, the infrequent violence comes out of left field and hits hard: when rounded up by the men who financed the coke deal, Jeff fools them into thinking he’s hidden the stash somewhere, and as they’re driving him to get it he uses a surprise “karate elbow” to knock a dude’s eyeball out of its socket! Bloody cord dangling down the guy’s cheek and everything. And previously Jeff’s been portrayed as a harmless movie-fan…though he did get “commando training” from his high school gym teacher(?!).

The “Ulla” of the excerpts above is Lena’s 18 year-old roommate, who professes no knowledge of where Lena’s run off to, and this after Jeff’s slapped her around a bit. She asks to come along with him, as apparently she’s attracted to him, and during the escape they get around to having sex: “I’m going to spunk you like you are a jungle goddess” being the unforgettable words Jeff initiates the act with. Oh and I forgot, at this point the two are on a ship, escaping wherever the hell the novel opened, and Jeff’s just taken a big shit! Yep folks, you read that right…we have a scene where Jeff sneaks into the restroom while everyone onboard is sleeping and tries to hide the sound of his, uh, “evacuations” with the flushes of the toilet. This takes place directly before the sex.

One would think Jeff would be a nervous man, with Swedish and American mobsters and the cops looking for him, but again, Charles Miron doesn’t roll that way. Instead our hero blathers endlessly about classic film, or makes obscure references to film or literature, and instead of hiding out he goes to a little village and works on his film script. Then one day he ditches Ulla and tries to get a boat to Copenhagen. Instead he’s caught by more drug-world denizens, but these ones are more professional and just want Jeff to work for them and find the cocaine he lost.

Instead Jeff makes off with Elizabet, sexy babe of this drug kingpin, and is right back to watching movies and talking about movies instead of worrying about his life. In fact the “climax” occurs at a screening of Jeff’s unfinished film, where the cops, thugs, and Mafioso who have been trailing him all congregate. Hopefully at this point no reader is expecting an action-packed finale, or even a sensible one. Jeff throws a “brick” of cocaine that turns out to be candy, and the thugs squabble for it, and the cops take custody of Jeff and lead him out, passing by the audience that wants to ask Jeff about his movie.

Honestly To Kill A Snowman was a hot mess, and I have to say I’m not sad that I don’t have any of Miron’s other Manor standalones.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Executioner #11: California Hit

The Executioner #11: California Hit, by Don Pendleton
November, 1972  Pinnacle Books

Picking up shortly after the previous volume, this installment of The Executioner has Mack Bolan in San Francisco, and what I found most impressive about California Hit is how effortless Don Pendleton makes it all seem. I was halfway finished the book and it felt like I’d just started reading it.

And yet, that edgy feel of the early volumes has been lost; one could almost argue that Pendleton is on autopilot at this point. I don’t mean that as a criticism; he’s just so perfected his template that you know exactly what you’re going to get: an opening action scene, a couple arbitrary parts where one-off characters recap everything that’s happened, some Mafia parts where various goombahs argue with one another, perhaps a sexy babe or two, and a final action scene. But Pendleton does it all so well that it comes off as fresh…but then we’re only on the 11th volume. If we’re still reading the same thing in the 30th volume it will be a different story.

Bolan’s already in San Francisco when we meet him, and the cover illustration comes into play immediately. Bolan tosses a satchel charge into a mob bar with an Asian theme and a “real live Chinal doll” runs onto the scene moments before the explosion. Bolan saves her, but this compromises his “numbers;” now his plan has been thrown awry and he’s in danger of being cornered by the mobsters and/or the cops who are quickly gathering on the scene. However I’m sure no reader anywhere was concered about this; as ever Bolan manages to escape both parties.

The “China Doll” is named Mary Ching, but she isn’t nearly as important to the series as a new item in Bolan’s arsenal: the .44 Auto Mag. This stainless steel automatic magnum is dwelt on for a few pages of proto gun-porn, receiving more coverage than any previous Bolan weapon, even down to the load mixture for the cartridges. What I found most humorous though is we are told this gun is new on the market, yet we’re not told how Bolan acquired it – previously we’ve been informed how he came across all his other weapons. Perhaps he took it from some thug he killed between volumes.

Anyway, Bolan’s come to mess up the San Francisco mob, and also he’s heard of a msyterious “Mr. King” who is behind the scenes and also needs a good killing. This recalls the previous volume, in which Bolan targeted the peons before going after the big bad guy in what came off as an arbitrary finale. However, there’s less action here. Pendleton spends more time with those one-off characters, either cops or Mafioso, fighting with each other or trying to figure out how they can finally bring down “that bastard Bolan.”

Even Mary Ching disappears too abruptly from the text; she drops Bolan off at her apartment and leaves him there. Bolan finds himself alone with two sexy nude young women who are sleeping in Mary’s place. One of them, a blonde, wakes up and starts waltzing around in the buff, asking Bolan if there’s any “organic coffee” in the cabinet. She idtentifies herself as Cynthy, her sleeping friend as Panda Bare, and says they’re both friends of Mary Ching – not to mention they’re both porno actresses. Believe it or not, I once found myself in the same situation! Sure, I didn’t have any organic coffee and the two porn actresses were on a video I was watching, but still!

I found all this reminiscent of Bolan meeting the three cuties in the seventh volume, but Bolan doesn’t seem to, and neither does Pendleton. This time though Bolan doesn’t consort with either babe, though Panda Bare is a “lez” anyway, per Cynthy. Surprisingly, Bolan doesn’t take Cynthy up on her offer for some good lovin’, but instead tells her to scram and to keep her mouth shut at the porn shoot she has that night…even though he’s sure either of the girls will mention him, even unwittingly. Bolan’s aware that the mob runs the porn racket, so it’s only a matter of time before these girls run into trouble – which of course they will before novel’s end.

Bolan does however find the time to get lucky with Mary Ching, later in the book, but the scene is totally off-page. Bolan is more concerned about whether he should trust her. First she comes back to her place with a few Mafia gunners tailing her, and after taking them out Bolan seems to be sure Mary was unaware they were following her. Then after taking her back to his “drop house,” Mary takes off again without any notice, and thus Bolan feels that his secure base has been compromised. He can’t get a handle on which side she’s on; Pendleton initially seems to be working in a Chinese tongs subplot, but apparently changes his mind and drops it before novel’s end. There’s also some red herring stuff about Red Chinese commie cells operating out of the Bay area, but that too doesn’t amount to much. 

As mentioned action is more sporadic. Bolan hits the bar in the opening, then gets in a few quick firefights here and there. The action highlight for me is his blitz on a mob location in which he first hits it with smoke bombs and then storms inside, wearing a gas mask and his customary blacksuit, and blows away goons with his new Auto Mag. Here though we have a return of another element of the template: a cop who is supportive of Bolan’s one-man war on the mob. Pendleton throws in a new twist this time in that the cop, Bill Phillips, was on Bolan’s team in ‘Nam.

Pendleton works in references to previous books, in particular #2: Death Squad; Phillips has kept up with Politician and Gadgets, telling Bolan they’re doing well living lives of anonymity now. Of course these two would later feature in Able Team, but as for Bill Phillips I don’t know if he returned to the franchise; the last time the two face one another Phillips tells Bolan that it will be his duty to arrest him if Bolan ever steps foot in San Francisco again.

The Mr. King subplot is almost surreal in how vague it is. As with the last volume, Pendleton tries to remind us periodically that there’s a big man behind the scenes, one shrouded in mystery. Bolan finds out who it is in the final pages, after having set up the mobsters and orchestrating them into an ambush. Mr. King shows up in a car, and when Bolan spies him from afar he’s blown away by his identity. All we find out is that Mr. King is black, and his name “isn’t really King;” it seems evident that we’re to understand Mr. King is a Martin Luther King type of civil rights figurehead who in reality has “sold out his own people,” per a disgusted Bolan, who of course kills him.

At any rate Pendleton is more concerned with setting up the events of the next volume, which I believe per his interview in A Study Of Action-Adventure Fiction he claimed as one of his favorites in the series. Bolan gets in phone contact with Leo Turrin, the undercover cop back in Pittsfield, Bolan’s hometown and the location of the first volume. Turrin seems preoccupied about something and at novel’s end (as usual, the book occurs over just a few days) he informs Bolan that Bolan’s kid sister Johnny and Bolan’s old flame Val have gone missing. At the end of the book the Executioner hops in the “Warwagon” and heads back east to find them.

Pendleton’s writing is as skilled and assured as ever, but he seems to have forgotten that Bolan is only thirty years old. Several times in the book Pendleton mentions that Bolan’s not only a ‘Nam vet but he’s also a veteran of the Korean war! First this appears in a “Uniform Crime Network” bulletin which opens the book; it’s stated that Bolan fought in Korea, and I was willing to accept this as just a gaffe on the part of the authorities. But then in the novel Bolan himself is remembering this or that incident in Korea, so Pendleton must’ve forgotten for this installment that his protagonist would’ve been way too young to fight in that particular war.