The Butcher #7: Death Race, by Stuart Jason
July, 1973 Pinnacle Books
My assumption is Harlequin Books briefly took over The Butcher, at least for this one volume, as James “Stuart Jason” Dockery gives us a slow-moving yarn in which usually-gruff Bucher falls in love with a lovely young Eskimo gal, spends lots and lots of time pondering his feelings, and ultimately decides to quit White Hat and live here in Alaska happily ever after. At the very least, Dockery can be credited for finally straying outside the rigid template he has followed for the preceding six volumes.
I’ll skip my usual belabored rundown of the purgatory-esque sequence of events Bucher experiences in each and every volume: let it only be said that yes, the novel opens with him being tailed by two superdeformed Syndicate goons who knew him back in the day, and yes, Bucher makes short work of them. After which he is, once again, bailed out of jail by a slackjawed local yokel cop who can’t believe this grim-faced killer has such governmental clout. From there to the assignment briefing with the aged Director of White Hat, who has it that the Dewline defense system on the US-Canada border has been compromised.
In yet another similarity to a previous volume, duplicates of the thoroughly-vetted defense personnel are apparently being put in place by a mastermind (or “The Snake,” as Bucher eventually begins to think of him, apropos of nothing). Due to a random accident one of the dupes was outed, and now the Director is frantic that all of the remote Dewline outposts, each manned by one person, have been compromised by lookalikes. But as usual there’s nothing to go on, no leads to track. All White Hat has is a letter the sister of one of the personnel sent to the President, complaining that her brother was acting strange lately, probably due to all the pressure running his outpost. The Director suspects that her brother is one of the dupes.
Bucher flies to Alaska to investigate. It’s page-filling of the most egregious kind as we’re informed of all sorts of “life in Alaska” bullshit. I experienced a bad flashback to the similar page-filling “life among the Eskimos” stuff in John Eagle Expeditor #7. Dockery pulled similar stunts in previous books, usually with shoehorned detail about the Middle East or Egypt or whatever, so this time it’s at least a change of scenery. But it does go on and on, with zero in the way of action. It gets worse when Bucher meets Sonja Rostov, the sister who wrote that letter to the president about her brother – and it’s love at first sight.
The Butcher gets all lovey-dovey as our hard-assed hero finds himself acting like a smitten fool around Sonja. We’re informed she’s not classically beautiful, but appropriately hot, with a jawdropping but petite body. More importantly, there is a “primitive” look about her – she makes her appearance draped in animal skins and wielding a Bowie knife – and gradually Bucher understands that the two are very alike. Soon enough she’s giving him a leather band that symbolically binds them as mates(!). There follows lots of crap seemingly lifted from a RomCom as Bucher relaxes in a steam bath, shocked when Sonja and a female friend happen to see him nude, Bucher embarrassed and getting tongue-tied and etc, and you just wonder to yourself, “When, Lord, when will Bucher start killing people again??”
After an extra-long haul some action presents itself: Sonja is being hassled by two locals, and after an interminable sequence of setting the situation up they arrive in the village. Bucher goes out to confront them, first shooting their dog as a sign of his bad-assery. But other than this it’s anticlimactic as all get-out; Bucher whips out his Walther, and it’s “koosh-koosh,” goodbye both tough guys. We’re back to the romance stuff…and by the way, as ever Dockery is reluctant to provide any explicit material. About all we get is Sonja wrapping her arms around her stomach and murmuring how she feels she’s been “wifed” good and proper. And meanwhile Bucher has decided that this is his last job, he’s going to quit White Hat, stay here in Alaska, and get married.
But Dockery hasn’t forgotten the other mainstay of his series template: the mission Bucher’s been sent here on abruptly changes. Ostensibly he’s here in this backwoods Alaskan village waiting for Sonja’s brother to arrive; White Hat arranged for Rostov to be sent home on a temporary leave of absence, with the idea that Bucher would be waiting here for him and figure out if he’s the real thing or a dupe. Sonja for her part is certain the man she saw a few months ago was not her brother, which is why she wrote that letter. Okay, so we’re waiting for all this to happen. Then the Director swings into town and reveals that Sonja’s brother is not coming, and also it was all a mistake and there really were no “dupes” as such, just personnel who were pretending to be dupes, as part of a diversionary meaure to distract attention from the real plot of the mastermind behind all this!!!
And who is the mastermind? In some of Dockery’s lazier plotting, Bucher early on just happens to see an old photo of some village schoolkids, and one of them has a hideous birthmark on his face. Identical to a Chinese doctor Bucher once knew named Wu who was employed by the Syndicate but was finally retired due to the fact that he liked to strap people up and feed them to his trained dogs. Well guess what, folks. Wu is, believe it or not, the mastermind behind the Dewline plot!! The Director reveals as much, and also that Wu’s real plot appears to be the unleashing of an army of saboteurs into the US.
As if waving a big middle finger at his readers, Dockery then has the big climactic action scene occur off-page; the Director reveals that a team of Marines are right now converging on Wu’s hideout! Indeed, more priority is put on the “big revelation” that the Director’s real name is Sam White; he comments that he always wondered why Bucher never asked him what his real name was(!). So now Bucher’s job is to voyage out into the Alaskan wild and get the list of saboteurs from Wu’s training base, which is of course nearby, him being a hometown boy and all. Bucher will be assisted by an Amazonian White Hat agent named Olga. Sonja of course manages to bully her way into going along on what Bucher vows will be his last mission – he’s already tendered his resignation to the Director.
Now, anyone who even harbors a suspicion that Sonja might make it through Death Race alive is in serious danger of flunking Men’s Adventure 101 (and there is no remedial class!). As Marty McKee succinctly put it, “It comes as no surprise that Sonja doesn’t live to the end of the book.” So of course, she’s dead before the last page. But let’s take a moment to dwell on her murder, which Dockery delivers as expected, but in such a half-assed manner that I had to laugh at his bravado. I mean, Bucher has lost lady loves in previous volumes; it’s part of the template. But this time, we’re led to believe, it’s much different – he plans to marry Sonja, he plans to quit White Hat for her. Yet when Sonja’s assassinated by a sniper, just a few pages before the end of the book, we’re never informed who shot her!
Bucher’s kissing her goodbye, about to make his final assault on Wu’s lair, and Sonja’s shot at that moment. Bucher watches in a daze as she falls, dead…and then the next chapter has him storming in upon Wu, who’s in the midst of feeding a fresh victim to his dogs. Wu is shocked that Bucher is even here; the sadist has so descended into full-blown madness that he’s not even aware his main base has been attacked. Plus he hasn’t seen Bucher since his Syndicate days. We’re informed that Bucher killed off Wu’s two sole security guards on his way in, so that would mean it wasn’t either of them who shot Sonja – not only were they guarding the boss, but the boss wasn’t even aware Bucher was around! So it wasn’t Wu or any of his men who killed Sonja.
So then…who the hell was it? My guess is it must’ve been White Hat itself. In fact it’s the only possibility. The Director is initially startled that Bucher intends to quit, then brushes it off with a smile and something to the effect that he loves how Bucher is a man of his convictions and could make such a life-changing decision so quickly. In reality though, “Iceman” would be too valuable an agent to lose, so clearly Sonja Rostov must die. The more I think of it, I’m sure this was Dockery’s intention. Otherwise no info is given on who killed Sonja, and I’m betting no mention will be made of her in the next novel, which will see the usual “game reset” taking place.
But anyway as mentioned Wu, when we finally meet him, is about to feed an old Eskimo man to his dogs. And it still drives me nuts that Dockery creates these crazy, disgusting villains and never properly exploits them. I mean, Wu has two brains, one of them on his face, and he gets his jollies tying people up and setting his dogs loose on them! But as with all the other main villains in the series, Wu stays off-page for the duration, only showing up right before the very end – and only then to meet his expected fate: becoming dog food. At least Dockery goes full-bore with the graphic violence here, with Bucher feeling like he’s about to puke as he watches. Not that he stops watching it.
Here’s the last paragraph:
Bucher stared grimly at the grisly scene for a long half minute, then turned from it and headed out of the cave toward the cabin, the bitter-sour taste of galling defeat strong in his mouth.
On an unrelated note, only one post next week – it’ll be up on Wednesday.