Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Marc Dean Mercenary #1: Thirteen For The Kill

Marc Dean Mercenary #1: Thirteen For The Kill, by Peter Buck
July, 1981  Signet Books

Signet Books got back on the men’s adventure train in the early ‘80s with this series that ultimately ran 9 volumes. “Peter Buck” was the pseudonym of a British author named Peter Leslie, who also in the ‘80s wrote several volumes of the Gold Eagle Executioner and related books – in other words, Peter Buck isn’t some relative of Pearl S. And I’m sorry to report that a British vibe extends to Thirteen For The Kill, at least insofar as the pulp goes, with a clinical detachment to the narrative style, a plodding pace, and way too much narratorial padding. 

Also, at 224 pages of small, dense blocks of print, the novel’s just too long. Actually the length wouldn’t be bad if so much of it wasn’t devoted to scenery description or to hero Marc Dean and his titular thirteen-man force navigating treacherous stretches of the North African desert. One thing to note straightaway is that the cover makes Thirteen For The Kill look like the typical “lone wolf commando” yarn this genre is known for, but in reality it turns out to be more along the lines of the earlier Donovan’s Devils or the contemporary Soldier For Hire, only without the wonderfully bonkers reactionary vibe of the latter. Indeed, there is a blasé, bland vibe to the entirety of Thirteen For The Kill. But it is similar to Soldier For Hire in that Marc Dean, rather than being a lone wolf commando type, is actually a “leader of men” (as outright stated in the narrative), commanding a force of…forty men. Actually, the setup is even more similar to The Liberty Corps, which also eschewed the typical lone fighter setup for such large forces. 

I concur with the mighty Zwolf, who also was not fond of our series protagonist: Marc Dean, a 36 year-old career officer who now makes his living as a mercenary. As Zwolf notes, Dean’s a bit too much of an asshole officer to be a series protagonist, not much listening to his men and needlessly putting them in jeopardy. But then, this is more of a team book, as Dean doesn’t operate in a solo capacity: the core seems to be comprised of Sean Hammer, Dean’s Irish best budy, and Mazzari, an African with a British accent (and who per pulp demands is the immensely muscled black guy on the team). Atypical for most men’s adventure protagonists, Dean has both a wife and a kid – though the wife’s recently become an ex-wife, and the kid, a 4-year-old son, lives with his mom. This means then that Dean is still free to engage in the casual sex also demanded by the genre, though you win a no-prize if you’ve guessed that Brith author Leslie doesn’t get too risque in the sex scenes. Hell, even the violence is mostly PG. 

As with a lot of British pulp the vibe here is very continental, despite Dean being an American. I mean when I personally think of a professional mercenary, I don’t think of some guy who went to Harvard and has lush penthouses around Europe; Dean is very much a “man of action” in the Jefferson Boone mold. But unlike Boone he doesn’t work alone, and the gist of the series seems to be Dean putting together teams to take on his jobs. And also Dean does not have any emotional connection to these jobs, so again the usual revenge angle of men’s adventure is gone here. In Thirteen For The Kill Dean’s task is to destroy a fortress in North Africa that has been taken over by an “Arabic non-Muslim” extremist force. 

Leslie pulls a number from the average men’s adventure mag story by opening the tale late in the action, then flashing back to the establishing events. It’s very much in the men’s mag mold as we meet Dean, suffering from momentary amnesia, as he wakes up off the coast of some North African hellhole, trying to remember how he got here. Soon enough he regains his memory and recalls that he was leading a force of 40 men on an attack of a fortress, but the majority of his men were killed in a sea wreck and now Dean only has the titular thirteen mercs at his disposal. From there we jump back to the long establishing material; Leslie proves himself more comfortable in the non-action scenes, making his future career as a Gold Eagle scribe a little suspect. 

But then, there is a ton of ‘80s gun-p0rn in Thirteen For The Kill. Straight-up exposition as Dean will discuss guns and ammo and whatnot with his underworld dealer, or where there will even be asterisked footnotes explaining what certain weaponry acronyms mean. There’s even a laundry list, late in the game, of the various weaponry Dean and force still has at their disposal, complete with number of rounds for each. It gets to be a bit much, and certainly brings to mind Gold Eagle. The only notable thing is that Dean, at a bargain, picks up several Dardick pistols; Leslie explains to us via exposition (and later another footnote) that these odd-looking pistols were developed for the Air Force in the late ‘40s but were never actually put into service for various reasons. 

Not that much is made of it when all these guns are actually put to use. Peter Leslie seems to be writing more of a suspense thriller than he is a men’s adventure novel; the action scenes are sporadic at best, and certainly bloodless. They also have more of the feel of war fiction, same as Soldier For Hire and Liberty Corps, with Dean directing fire instead of actively engaging in it like a lone wolf men’s adventure protagonist would. Personally I feel this takes away from the excitement, and I didn’t much enjoy it. I did however like Dean’s hatred of all things martial arts; twice in the novel (including even in dialog with his 4-year-old son!) Dean claims that karate and such is just “jumping around” and that a “pencil in the eye” is much more effective. Take that, Joon Rhee! 

Speaking of Dean’s son, he factors into a random flashback late in the game to when Dean last saw him, just a few weeks before the novel’s opening. More focus however is placed on Dean’s ex; our hero is still hung up on her, claiming she’s the only woman he ever loved, and this entire flashback is about the most recent time he banged her. That said, Dean does pretty good for himself otherwise, picking up some nameless blonde early in the book for some off-page shenanigans, and then, just a few pages later, he’s entagled with another babe once he’s gotten to Morocco. This is Rada, who might or might not be an enemy agent. Leslie handles the sex scenes with the same white glove treatment as the action scenes, with lines like, “He went into her, deep as a sword wound.” The flashback frolic with Dean’s ex contains an even better line: “[Dean] was easily, scaldingly, wonderfully inside her.” Scaldingly? Sounds like the ex Mrs. Dean might want to pay a visit to her gyno. 

Another humorous line is when Dean, after crawling through the hot desert to scope out an enemy base, decides to disguise himself as one of the Arabic soldiers: “There was still enough grime on [Dean’s] face to give him a swarthy appearance.” This reminded me of the part in Team America where they “disguised” the main puppet as a radical Muslim terrorist. Such things might implly that Leslie had his tongue in cheek, but otherwise the tone is flat and serious throughout. There isn’t much spark to Thirteen For The Kill, is what I mean to say, and I’m hoping the ensuing 8 volumes are an improvement.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Last Scam

The Last Scam, by David Harris
No month stated, 1981  Delacorte Press

I first discovered this obscure novel, only ever published in this hardcover edition, some years ago while searching the Kirkus review archives for novels about marijuana smuggling in the ‘70s. Really! While the review was negative (as is typical for vintage Kirkus reviews), I still wanted to read the book, so ordered a copy through Interlibary Loan. I think this was about three or so years ago. 

When I got the book from the lending library – and curiously the book had never even seemed to have been opened before, let alone read – I flipped through the pages, and rather than seeing the pot-fueled madcap hippie dope smuggling fun escapist yarn I wanted, it was a barrage of Spanish language, Mexican locales, and hardly anything about marijuana smuggling at all. I returned the book to my library, which returned it on to the lending library, still unread. But I recently went on another of my random “I’ve gotta read a book about marijuana smuggling in the ‘70s” tangents, and found myself looking at that Kirkus review of The Last Scam again. And this time, I swore to all the trash gods, I’d read the damn thing. 

Once again the book I received seemed to be in perfect, pristine, never-touched shape, save for the fact that the dustcover had been removed. And I cracked open the uncracked spine and tried to read this 364-page monstrosity again. And realized within the first few pages why it sunk without a trace, never garnering a paperback edition – not even from a low-budget imprint like Manor Books! So again, there’s absolutely none of the ‘70s dope-smuggling fun escapism I wanted here in The Last Scam, not even anything approaching similarly-themed contemporary novels like Night Crossing and The Mexican Connection. Even the deranged and reactionary Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve was better than this slow-moving chore of a novel. 

So here’s the thing. That Kirkus review, while negative, actually makes The Last Scam sound better than it is. Those colorfully-named dope-world characters mentioned in the review turn out to be paper-thin ciphers who have no backgrounds or interests or personality – I mean, we don’t even learn why the main character, a veteran dope smuggler named Henry Amazon, even got into the drug game to begin with! And hell, other than an occasional puff of “motta” (again, Spanish words proliferate in the text), Amazon is straight-edged the entire novel, keyed up on the planning of the titular last scam. 

None of the cool period drug world stuff I wanted was here, ie stuff like in Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. It’s all so bland and boring, with no mentions of the world outside of desolate patches of Mexico where Henry Amazon plans his final marijuana run. And yeah, “Henry Amazon.” Author David Harris has this annoying quirk of repeating the dude’s full name constantly in the narrative: “Henry Amazon,” over and over. But that’s not bad enough. The other names are just confusing. Like Ramon Ramon, Amazon’s former partner…but who turns out to really be a “gringo” like Amazon. I mean despite having a novel in which 90% of the characters are Mexican, author Harris even gives one of the few white protagonists a Spanish name! 

But then, The Last Scam is so “Mexico First” that there are parts where Henry Amazon, the friggin’ protagonist of the yarn, is referred to as a “gringo” in the narrative! This gets confusing because Harris will willy-nilly refer to Amazon or Ramon Ramon as “the gringo.” But then again, Harris is really bad with POV-hopping, by which I mean one paragraph we’re in one character’s perspective and in the next we’re in another character’s perspective, and there’s no white space or anything to warn us of the perspective change. One of my true pet peeves in books. It just generates confusion, confusion which is only compounded by all the similarly-named, cipher-like characters. 

I also suspect Harris was influenced by Joe Eszterhas’s series of Nark! articles for Rolling Stone in the early ‘70s, which were eventually anthologized as a hardcover by Rolling Stone’s publishing venture Straight Arrow Press. As in Nark!, the government agents are an unhinged, sadistic lot, particularly the Mexican ones. This brings me to a more interesting parallel. There are a lot of similarities between The Last Scam and the work in general of William Crawford. The overall grimy, dirty vibe (everyone seems to be dirty and greasy), the sadistic cops, the penchant for torture, the sudden eruptions of brutal violence, even the weird quirk of characters shitting themselves. Even some of the phraseology is similar: “drop his mud” is used here, as in someone giving away info, and the only other place I’ve seen that phrase is in Crawford’s novels. 

Now, I’m not saying David Harris was William Crawford, though I guess it’s possible (though I think Crawford died around 1979 or so). I’m just saying it’s an interesting similarity. Because William Crawford would’ve written a more entertaining novel, I’m sure. I mean comparatively speaking. The problem with The Last Scam is the unlikable, ciper-like characters who plod through its boring events with absolutely no escapist thrills for the reader to enjoy. It’s a humorless beat-down of a novel, the complete antithesis of the fun sort of dope smuggling yarn I wanted…like the more recent High Fliers. It’s also curiously devoid of any background detail on drug smuggling; as mentioned, why Henry Amazon or Ramon Ramon even became smugglers is not mentioned. And about the most we learn about either of them is that they were in ‘Nam together. That’s it. 

The novel opens with a prologue set in 1977, in which Henry Amazon and Ramon Ramon run into each other in some dingy Mexican restaurant – almost the entirety of the novel takes place in such locales. We quickly learn some background on the two; Amazon and Ramon were partners until 1971, when they had an acrimonious splitting of ways. This had something to do with a screw-up a third partner, The Patchouli Kid, happened to make on a scam (ie a drug run). Speaking of whom, here in this prologue Ramon casually mentions that the Patchouli Kid has been killed by the sadistic Federales, ie the Mexican cops. Amazon storms off, and I guess all this is Harris’s foreshadowing of how dangerous “scams” are becoming. 

We then pick back up in 1978…and we’re again in Mexico. And Amazon is planning another scam. And he’ll again run into Ramon Ramon. Here though we learn there was more to their falling out: years ago Amazon’s girlfriend Wanda Lamar (also an assumed name), ran off with Ramon. But even this is just muddled backstory; Wanda is mentioned infrequently, in particular that she eventually “went native,” living with the Indians in the Mexican jungle to the point that she came off like one. Or at least Amazon took her for one, last time he saw her. But the point is, Wanda even eventually left Ramon, however she turns up in the last quarter of The Last Scam to complicate the lives of both men. However, Amazon no longer even “feels anything” for Wanda, so any potential for some drama or fireworks is also neutered. As I say, David Harris does a thorough job of consistently ruining the potential of his novel. 

Oh and meanwhile there are the sadistic Feds, both American and Mexican. In charge of the latter is Cruz, who tortures with relish in some of the book’s more shocking scenes; there’s a bit in the middle where he tortures a captured American drug-runner with a flame-heated knife. In charge of the Americans is Purdy Fletcher, aka Purd, a fat moron of reactionary values who seems to have stumbled out of Eszterhas’s book Nark. Under Purd’s command is new Federal agent “Hog” Wissel, which of course made me think of Hog Wiley. These guys work with Cruz, though Cruz and Purd have an antagonistic relationship; on both sides, the cops are presented as bumbling psychopaths who don’t care so much about drugs as they do capturing, torturing, and killing their prey. 

But that’s about it so far as an underground vibe goes to The Last Scam. I mean there isn’t even any tie-in to when all this really started a decade before, with all the hippies running drugs across the border and whatnot…you know, the sort of stuff in Smokestack El Ropo’s Bedside Reader. No mention of the passing of time, or of the drug culture in general…nothing. It’s just a bland, dispirited, boring novel, which is mind-boggling when you consider it. About the only mention we get of any of that stuff is that minor character Beef Stew (another assumed name) was once a member of the Brotherhood of Love…a California-based LSD cult that was featured in, you guessed it, Nark

Otherwise David Harris’s focus is on the business end of the scam, the planning and the waiting. Oh, the waiting. There are so many parts in this nigh-on 400-page novel where Henry Amazon or Ramon Ramon just sit in a dingy Mexican motel room…and wait. Wait for their connection to drum up some money, wait for someone to call them on the meet. It’s just endless wheel-spinning. Midway through things pick up when Ramon’s scam with Beef Stew goes haywire, in violent fashion. Another thing: Ramon Ramon is himself close to being the novel’s antagonist, given how he’s supposedly blown away a narc and is now on the FBI’s most wanted list. But even this doesn’t pan out into anything memorable; Ramon manages to elude Purd and the others several times, but when this subplot reaches its conclusion it is very anticlimactic. 

Harris is also guilty of a weird, half-assed omniscient tone. Throughout the novel we’ll be told stuff like, “Amazon didn’t know it, but the car he’d just passed happened to belong to…” That sort of thing, where we are constantly being told things the character doesn’t know, or couldn’t know. But otherwise there’s no omniscient narrator voice to tie all this together. In other words, it’s half-assed, and of a piece with the POV-hopping. What I’m trying to say is, I really didn’t enjoy The Last Scam, and there’s no mystery why it didn’t find a greater readership. I think David Harris had a fine idea for a novel (he even dedicates it to the supposed “real” Henry Amazon, wishing him to stay safe), but he ruined it with such a humorless, boring approach. Decades later Robert Sabbag would take a similar plot and do much better with it, in Loaded.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Digger #1: Smoked Out

Digger #1: Smoked Out, by Warren Murphy
February, 1982  Pocket Books

The prolific Warren Murphy wrote this private eye series for Pocket Books, and ultimately it ran for four volumes, after which Murphy jumped ship to another publisher and changed the series (and protagonist’s) name to Trace. But for this initial series, Pocket followed the same angle as Popular Library did a decade earlier when they packaged the similarly action-free P.I. series Hardy as an “action series.” 

Not to imply that Digger is as bland and boring as Hardy. I mean, at least Julian “Digger” Burroughs does more than watch TV and eat in Smoked Out. He finds time to hook up with a couple women and even get in a fistfight. But otherwise the action is about on the level of The Rockford Files or some other private eye TV show of the era. And if I’m not mistaken, Trace did end up as a TV show, or at least a TV pilot. Anyway, Digger doesn’t even carry a gun; his weapon of choice is a tape recorder, “the size of a pack of cigarettes,” which he usually straps to his chest to surreptitiously record the witnesses he interviews. 

Like the earlier Killinger, Digger is a claims investigator, but unlike Killinger he isn’t a “ruggedly virile” type who lives on a Chinese junk with all the bachelor pad trimmings. Digger is in more of your typical sleazebag private eye mold, and operates out of Las Vegas, where he shares an apartment with a hotstuff Japanese babe named Koko who happens to be a high-class hooker. The Digger-Koko relationship is by far the best thing about Smoked Out, and in truth is a little reminiscent of the Remo-Chiun relationship in The Destroyer, if only for the acidic barbs which are traded back and forth. There’s also the element that the two love each other but cannot admit it (to each other or to themselves), just like Remo and Chiun. 

But, obviously, it’s a romantic love in Digger, instead of the father-son love of The Destroyer. Otherwise as you’ll note, it’s the same setup: smart-ass white protagonist and calm-natured Asian, with all the bickering and bantering Murphy does so well. In fact he does it too well, as ultimately I found that my problem with Smoked Out was the same as with the other Destroyer novels I’ve read: it was all just too glib for its own good. I kept having bad flashbacks to Chevy Chase in Fletch (which I only saw once, in the theater when it came out, and I was just a kid), as it was quite hard to take Digger as a serious character as he spent the entirety of the novel making one glib comment after another. 

As with The Destroyer, there was nothing believable about the character, at least nothing that made his drive to solve the case believable. Digger, like Remo, seems to exist in his own self-impressed world, mocking and laughing at everything, thus it is hard to understand why he even cares about cracking insurance cases. Same as when Remo is suddenly all resolved to stop some bad guy. Why does he even care? What drives him? This must be a recurring gimmick of Warren Murphy protagonists. They’re such glib smart-asses that I personally can’t believe in them when they’re suddenly retconned into determined heroes due to the demands of the plot. 

In other words, if things aren’t serious for the protagonist, how are they supposed to be serious for the reader? But then, we aren’t talking about globe-threatening plots in this series: Digger’s first case has him investigating the death of a wealthy doctor’s wife in Los Angeles. This would be Mrs. Jessalyn Welles, who’s car ran over a cliff while her doctor husband was a few hundred miles away at a conference. Digger gets the job from his company and heads to L.A., where we learn posthaste the method of his investigation: he goes around to a seemingly-endless parade of people who knew Mrs. Welles, introduces himself with a different fake name to each, and then runs his mouth endlessly in the hopes of getting info from them. 

It gets to be confusing – and not just to the reader. Digger gives one new name after another, seemingly coming up with the names on the fly, as well as what his job is. And of course trading glib dialog with the person he’s trying to get info from. Pretty soon he gets confused which name he gave which person. It’s all funny at first but quickly becomes grating. I guess I just have to accept the fact that I’m not a big fan of Warren Murphy’s novels. And the dialog just gets to be grating. He finds a dimwitted babe who is into vitamin pills and trades lots of glib dialog with her about them. Or he concocts the novel scheme of going around and telling people he’s working on a remembrance card for Mrs. Welles and wants input from those who knew her. 

Speaking of babes, Digger manages to get laid – not that he seems to enjoy it much. Another curious Remo parallel. Anyway, it’s a Scandanavian gal who casually admits she’s had an affair with Dr. Welles, and soon enough Digger’s in bed with her. And thinking of Koko the whole time. That said, Murphy gets fairly explicit here, more so than any of the Destroyer novels I’ve read. But still, Digger doesn’t seem to enjoy it. For one, Murphy’s sarcastic vibe is so perpetuating that any cheap thrills the reader might want are denied; the gal in question is treated so derisively and dismissively by Digger that one would be hard-pressed to understand that she is in fact very attractive and incredibly built. Digger could just as easily be screwing a cardboard cutout, is what I’m trying to say. Also, more focus is placed on Digger’s certainty that the gal is faking it, with his running commentary on how he’d rate her performance. It’s only when Digger himself finally orgasms that he is “Surprised once again at how good it felt.” This is the sort of robotic shit that plagued The Destroyer

One difference between Remo and Digger is that Digger isn’t a “superman” (like the old Pinnacle house ads described Remo). Shortly after the lovin’ there’s a part where Digger is ambushed by a few guys; certainly the inspiration for the cover art, as this is pretty much the only “action” scene in the entirety of Smoked Out. Digger gives as good as he gets, but still gets his ass kicked and is only saved by the appearance of another female character. The ambush was due to Digger’s investigation, of course, and true to the template of most all P.I. novels Digger soon discovers that Mrs. Welles was into all kinds of shady stuff, and that her death might not have been so accidental. 

But still, Smoked Out was a chore of a read. The glib protagonist, the glib dialog, hell even the glib author – I could only imagine Warren Murphy smirking to himself the entire time he wrote it. I mean the dude could write, there’s no argument on that. I just don’t like what he wrote. But as the cover of Smoked Out declares, “over 20 million” Warren Murphy novels were in print in 1982, so clearly my sentiments aren’t shared by everyone.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Random Record Reviews: Volume 6

1970s California Rock (and its modern apotheosis):

It’s been a while since I did a Random Record Review. I’ve been reading Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California, which concerns the ‘70s California rock scene, and it got me listening to that era of music. Actually I think it was the other way around – I think I was already listening to such music, then decided to read Hoskyns’s book. 

1. William Truckaway: Breakaway 
Reprise, 1971 

William Truckaway, previously known as William Sievers, was a member of obscure San Francisco psychedelic rock group Sopwith Camel. This was his one and only solo LP, pretty much the epitome of country-tinged Californian hippie rock. I mean look at that dude’s dirty feet on the cover! Wash your friggin’ feet, hippie! Truckaway has a pleasantly mellow voice and in some ways Breakaway is like a proto-Beck album, especially in its usage of unusual instruments and blue-eyed funk. A lof of it is in the country-rock vibe of the time, but not too grating, with the occasional dobro and/or harmonica augmenting Truckaway’s slacker-esque lyrics; or we will get something as unusual as a sitar, like on the hummable ditty “I Go Slow,” which comes off like a slacker anthem two decades early. Moogs will just as often appear, most notably in the shoulda-been-a-huge-hit “Bluegreens.” Originally released as a single in 1969, when it had been titled “Bluegreens On The Wing,” this track basically encapsulates the vibe of summer. The LP version is slightly different from the earlier single mix, a bit more refined and polished. Previously this LP version wasn’t online – until now! Here it is, playing on my Pioneer PL-518: 

2. Warehouse Sound Co. & Friends: Warehouse Sound Co. & Friends 
Warehouse Sound Co., 1974 

I discovered this obscure LP a few years ago, while researching any appearances of Dr. Patrick Gleeson, an early synth player I knew from Herbie Hancock’s Sextant. This led me to the discovery of this LP, and thanks to a Youtube upload I heard the multi-suite song “Medicine Wheel,” which had been taken from the album. A very cool song that opens with some Gleeson synth experimentation before morphing into a mellow stoned acoustic number, courtesy someone named David Riordan (more on whom anon). Warehouse Sound Co. was an audio store in Los Angeles and here they released their own record that would come with stereos purchased in their store, or somesuch. This is a professionally-packaged product, though, and I wonder if Capitol Records was involved in some fashion. A nice touch is that the cover also feels like wood, matching the photo. 

Other than the “Medicine Wheel” suite, I could find nothing from this album uploaded online, and there was no digital release. Luckily, copies are inexpensive. It turns out the album is more on a soft rock tip than the “Medicine Wheel” suite would imply. It’s also a short record, under 30 minutes, with 4 songs per side. It sounds great, though, and is well mastered. The featured performer is a person named David Riordan, previously in an L.A. band called Sweet Pain, here doing more of a singer-songwriter thing with a bunch of studio musicians, people who worked at Warehouse Sound, and also Gleeson. Other than “Medicine Wheel,” the song that I really like here – and again one that sounds dissimilar from the other pleasant-toned songs on the album – is a number called “Lady Grace.” It too features Gleeson’s synths. Since there was no other version online, I once again lazily recorded my copy as it played on my turntable: 

3. David Riordan, Medicine Wheel 
Capitol, 1974 

After I’d played Warehouse Sound Co. & Friends a few times I decided to look up this David Riordan guy. I saw that, the same year that other record came out, Riordan also released a solo album on Capitol – and also this was his one and only solo LP. Most interestingly, a lot of tracks on Medicine Wheel, like for example the title track, were the same as those that appeared on Warehouse Sound Co. & Friends. But were they the same versions? Or had Riordan re-recorded them with different studio musicians? I also saw that Patrick Gleeson was credited on the solo LP, so my curiousity was very piqued. But absolutely nothing from Medicine Wheel was on Youtube or anywhere else online, so to find the answers to my questions I would have to buy the record itself. Luckily, copies are inexpensive; I got mine for a little over two bucks. 

It turns out that the versions of the songs on Medicine Wheel are indeed different than the ones on Warehouse Sound Co. & Friends. And in most cases the versions here on this solo LP are superior. Not all of the songs are repeats, though, and some tracks from that other album don’t appear here, like for example the aforementioned “Lady Grace.” Also, title track “Medicine Wheel” drops the suite format of the Warehouse Sound Co. & Friends version, losing the experimental intro but at the same time becoming even more dreamy, thanks to additional instrumentation and effects in the mix. Overall this album too goes for a pleasant, bouncy, summery type of soft rock, most of the tracks being upbeat and happy. The only anomaly would be the title track, which comes off like the epitome of that early-to-mid-‘70s Laurel Canyon “I just lit a fat joint and I’m gonna sit here and watch the sun go down and ponder the cosmos” Californian singer-songwriter vibe. Since it’s not on Youtube, I made a video of it myself: 

4. Various Artists: Elektra/Asylum Fall 1974 Releases 
Elektra/Asylum, 1974 

This promo-only compilation LP comes off like the soundtrack to Barney Hoskyns’s Hotel California, given that book’s focus on the Elektra and Asylum rosters. However, I got this LP due to the fact that it features the title track of Gene Clark’s 1974 big-budget bomb No Other; so far as I know, other than the overpriced original pressing, this is the only place you can get a song from No Other on a contemporary vinyl release. Like Skip Spence’s Oar, No Other was rediscovered by the hipsters of the ‘90s and the prices of the original pressing skyrocketed accordingly. Even modern represses are pricey. I’ve never bothered getting any of the pressings, though, happy with the CD I bought many years ago, because No Other isn’t an album I play frequently at all. Too much of it is country-focused; too little of it is the blown-out mid-‘70s madness I want. A notable exception is the title track, which appears here…but this version is an edit. The LP version of “No Other” runs over 6 minutes, this one’s not even 4 minutes. I’m uncertain if it’s the same mix as on the UK-only single release of “No Other.” Once again I had to resort to recording my own copy, as there was no other Youtube upload: 

Note that this is the last song on a very long side. Fall 1974 Releases will not win any audiophile rewards, as the music has been crammed on here; each side is 30 minutes long. The more information that’s jammed into vinyl the more fidelity is lost; it’s my understanding the bass is the first to go. However as you’ll note, it actually sounds pretty good! And I’m using my new cartridge here, an Audio Technica AT-VM95C, which is a conical – aka the “lowest” level of stylii, so far as price and precision of cut goes. But man, this thing sounds phenomenal, even better than the thrice-the-price Nagaoka MP-110 I was previously using. Anyway, enough geekery. Otherwise this compilation focuses on country-rock (side 1 in particular), with singer-songerwriters like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne appearing. Side 2 gets more into a rock focus, with Jo Jo Gunne and Traffic. A track here that made me stand up and take notice was the new-to-me Dennis Linde, with the title track of his ’74 album Trapped In The Suburbs. That one immediately had me hitting Discogs for a copy – and, like the David Riordan solo LP, a copy was available for practically nothing. I’ll review that one someday as well. 

5. Jonathan Wilson: Fanfare 
Bella Union, 2013 

I’m gonna try to keep this one brief. I’ll just say, if you love ‘70s rock in general and ‘70s California rock in particular, GET THIS ALBUM. And if you’re in the US, get the vinyl release from K-F Merch. They are selling the pink vinyl UK release that comes with a CD (it’s hidden in the sleeve with the second vinyl disc), and their copy is very affordable; currently no sellers in the US have Fanfare on vinyl on Discogs. I first learned about Jonathan Wilson a few years ago, on the Steve Hoffman music forums. Soon after I listened to Fanfare, Wilson’s tribute to big-budget ‘70s rock, on streaming, and I thought it was good, but I didn’t really focus on it, and soon moved on to other things. Through happenstance I rediscovered the album recently and the damn thing knocked me out. It was like I wasn’t ready for it before. Now I’m prepared to rank Fanfare in my top five favorite records of all time, if not higher. And folks if you know anything about me, you know I prefer vintage stuff. I mean I practically live in the past. I never thought I’d be declaring the merits of something released just ten years ago. 

I recently went on a Jonathan Wilson obsession and here’s what I can tell you. He’s my age; actually he’s two months younger than me, as he was born in December of 1974. He grew up in a small town and grew up with a love of ‘60s and ‘70s rock. He must have learned to play instruments at a young age; he's a guitar wiz now, and surely would be known as one of the giants of the day had he been around in the era he so wonderfully recreates on his albums.  He plays tons of other instruments besides, and also has vast experience in producing music.  He even uses vintage equipment in his personal studio, as lovably described in this comprehensive overview. Wilson was in a late ‘90s alternative band I hadn’t heard of (Muscadine), then after that fell apart he moved on to session work and served as guitarist in the touring groups of several musicians. 

Wilson initially struck off on his solo career with Frankie Ray, an Oar-type ode to ‘70s rock in that, like Skip Spence, Wilson not only did vocals but played every instrument, multi-tracking himself like some decades-removed version of Emmit Rhodes. This was in 2005, but the album was never officially released – and it’s still crying out for a proper release, especially on vinyl. It’s out on Youtube, though. A few years later Wilson released Gentle Spirit, often mistakenly referred to as his “first album” and almost universally described as “Pink Floyd jamming with Crosby, Stills, and Nash.” 

From the success of that album Wilson moved on to Fanfare, which was to be his tribute to “widescreen, blown out,” mid-‘70s epics like…well, like No Other. It really comes off like the album Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young never made in the mid-1970s. Maybe with walk-ons from Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys (no relation to Jonathan Wilson) and Pink Floyd. But hell, the album itself has walk-ons from those actual musicians: David Crosby and Graham Nash appear, as does Jackson Browne, among others. Fanfare is really the distillation of that entire ‘70s rock sound, head music in its truest sense, mixing the airy harmonies of CSN, the ragged rock of Neil Young, the aural vibe of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, the “I live in the studio” ambiance of Electric Ladyland. It is just about as perfect a rock album as one could want, and it’s incredible that Wilson has released, in today’s age, such a big-budget rock album that demands you put on the headphones, turn off the lights, and give the music your full attention. Perhaps that’s why the first impression didn’t resonate with me. 

For this is not a “first impressions album” by any means. We all know “deep cuts,” those tracks buried on albums of yore that weren’t hits but went on to be loved by the fans; usually they were longer than standard single length, and would go through a few changes within the course of the song. Essentially Fanfare is an album of deep cuts. It’s debatable whether an LP like this would have been released in the actual 1970s; the label would have demanded more “hits.” That said, there are songs on here that are at odds with the “deep cuts” vibe, and almost come off like the “potential hit” the label might have demanded; Side 2 opener “Love To Love,” a Southern-tinged rocker in the Allman Brothers vein, would be one example. 

But man, on a performance level – instrumentation, singing, production – this album rocks. And it is a dense record, too, each track layered with instruments and period effects.  There’s even a friggin mellotron on a few tracks...that’s how “1970s” Fanfare is!  Wilson’s singing voice somewhat sounds like Dennis Coulson, of the unjustly-obcsure 1972 album Lo And Behold, mixed with a bit of a Stephen Stills rasp. In fact, other reviewers have noted that Jonathan Wilson’s voice seems to combine all three of CSN into one; this is especially notable in standout track “Cecil Taylor,” with Wilson serving as the Stills to the actual Crosby and Nash; it sounds like a lost CSN number, complete with the touch of spaciness CSN often brought to their songs: 

Opening title track “Fanfare” is also like a lost track…from Dennis Wilson’s 1977 masterpiece Pacific Ocean Blue. It actually sounds more like POB than any of the songs that appeared on the actual Dennis Wilson’s follow-up album Bambu (which by the way was never completed by Wilson). “Dear Friend” is where the Electric Ladyland vibe comes in; it starts off like a dreamy psychedelic number before turning into a heavy in-the-studio jam where Wilson smokes on wah-wah guitar. Good grief! How in the world is someone able to make rock music like this in today’s age? 

Fanfare is filled with songs that start off in one direction before going in another entirely. “Future Vision,” for example, initially comes off like John Lennon's early '70s solo work, with Wilson’s echoed voice singing of “The sweet caprice of love” over a Steinway Grand Piano, before morphing into something out of the Bob Welch era of Fleetwood Mac. There’s also a hidden reference, melody-wise, to John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” at the two-minute mark. There are such knowing winks to classic rock throughout; heavy number “Illumination,” another of those tracks where Wilson plays every instrument, starts off like a cover of Neil Young’s “Dangerbird” (but maybe with Tom Petty’s The Heartbreakers backing Young instead of Crazy Horse), then veers course into its own thing. “Moses Pain” starts off like Bob Dylan and ends as an anthemic singalong; it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the aforementioned Lo And Behold. All of the songs were written by Jonathan Wilson, save for “New Mexico,” in which the music was written by Wilson but the lyrics by Roy Harper, and the psychedellically funky “Fazon,” which is a cover of a tune by Sopwith Camel…aka the band that William Truckaway was in, thus bringing this Random Record Review full circle. 

One thing I didn’t want to do was describe every track, so I’ll cut it off here. (And please don’t assume the tracks I haven’t mentioned aren’t as great as the others!)  Essentially, Fanfare was created by someone who grew up on rock for people who grew up on rock. In olden times troubadors were performers who would carry on traditions, augmenting here and there but basically sticking to a template through the centuries. This has been lost in today’s era, in which progressivism is key – it’s always about what is new, what breaks tradition. In that regard Fanfare might be disregarded as an overly slavish attempt at mimicking the sound of an earlier time. But that would be a mistake. This album is more rewarding than most any other I can think of, certainly any other modern album. It truly deserves to be put in the pantheon of rock classics; it’s not Jonathan Wilson’s fault that he was born after the rock era ended. 

And you want Fanfare on vinyl! Now one thing I have to get out of the way is that the vinyl release is actually missing a track: “All The Way Down,” which is on the CD and streaming releases, does not appear on the vinyl release. This is a long LP; the average song length is over 5 minutes. Thus Bella Union has split it up to a double-vinyl release with 3 tracks per side, totalling 12 tracks. Unfortunately then, unlucky 13th track “All The Way Down” didn’t make the cut. But this is fine, really; if I had to cut one track from Fanfare, that would be it. Not that it’s bad. It’s just relatively unecessary after the epic, Abbey Road-esque “Lovestrong” (which features an actual Heartbreaker, pianist Benmont Trench). This means “Lovestrong” is the final track of the vinyl release, and I think that works out better. In my world “All The Way Down” would be a bonus track, maybe the B-side of the single if we’re sticking to the fantasy that Fanfare really is a product of the 1970s. 

Now about this vinyl pressing. It’s pretty great! It’s on super thick pink vinyl; I’m guessing it’s 180 gram. The gatefold release looks great, with the Sistine Chapel cover and a psychedelic photo of Jonathan Wilson on back. The inner gatefold is an artsy photo of some topless masked women who initially look nice…until you see their hairy armpits. Sorry, not my thing! The sleeves are thick, too; you really have to fight to get the records out. I actually put the sleeves aside and replaced them with standard ones. The pressing is not analog, certainly; like most modern records, the Fanfare vinyl release is digitally sourced. As Wilson explains in the feature I linked to above, while the album was mostly recorded analog, in the final stage of the “chain” it went to digital. This is fine…I mean the record sounds good, and certainly better than the digital release (that said, the CD sounds good, too, pressed with more care to fidelity than to winning the “loudness wars”). The most important note is that I heard things on the vinyl release I hadn’t noticed in the digital release; little details that weren’t as apparent in the digital releases. This is always one of the best things about vinyl. And it looks great, too; here’s the pink vinyl spinning on my turntable: 

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Revenger: Angel Of Destruction (aka The Revenger/Stark #12)

The Revenger: Angel Of Destruction, by Joseph Hedges
No month stated, 1977  Sphere Books

Not to be confused with the American series The Revenger, this Revenger series was published in the UK and came out in America as Stark. At least the first six volumes did. This twelfth and final volume was only published in the UK, under the original British series title of “The Revenger,” with the lurid photo covers the British of the 1970s seemed to demand in their pulp paperbacks. In fact, this cover photo actually depicts a scene in the novel. 

Indeed, Angel Of Destruction was similar to Cut in that it made me reassess my lazy notion that British pulp writers of the day were more clinical and bland than their American counterparts. Because my friends this one, at least at the start, achieves lurid levels comparative to such grimy masterpieces as Bronson: Blind Rage and Gannon. Yet of course it still has that “polished” British vibe…just not to the level of other British pulp I’ve read. And I’ve gone this far without mentioning that this final volume, as well as the volume before it (which I don’t have), was written by Angus Wells. Not by original series author Terry Harknett. I complained incessantly about Harknett’s stodgy, overpadded prose in my previous Stark reviews. I mean no lie, I loathed those three books I reviewed on here. Just overwritten, dull banalities with none of the escapism one might want from this genre. But Angus Wells is certainly better. 

Previous to this, the only thing by Angus Wells I’ve read was the first two volumes of the Raven fantasy series, which he wrote shortly after Angel Of Destruction (the original UK editions of Raven were published in 1978; the American editions came out ten years later). If this final volume of The Revenger is anything to go by, Angus Wells knew how to turn out a sex-and-violence filled piece of crime fiction. I mean Angel Of Destruction has it all: brutal torture, violent action, a whip-cracking bondage babe in knee-high boots, graphic sex a’plenty, and sardonic dialog from our asshole protagonist. Wells even tries to work in Harknett’s goofy tendency for puns, with each chapter ending on one…just like those earlier, Harnkett-penned volumes did. But Terry Harknett’s work on The Revenger is just a bad memory here. Wells’s work is so good it comes off like its own separate series, and it’s a pity he didn’t just write The Revenger from the start. 

While he does cater to the template Harknett devised – namely, that “hero” John Stark is a self-serving bastard who brings misery to anyone he encounters, thanks to the criminal syndicate he’s at war with – Wells does make a few detours. For one, he capitalizes the name of that criminal syndicate: here it is “The Company,” whereas it was always just “the company” for some mysterious reason in Harknett’s volumes. And Stark is still self-centered, but not narcissitically so, like he was in the Harknett books – where Stark didn’t even seem to care that he put others in jeopardy, and almost seemed to relish the idea. He’s still a prick, though. Just not such a hateful one. 

The entirety of Angel Of Destruction takes place in Japan, and Wells does a fair job of capturing the crowded neon streets, dropping the names of various locales and having Stark shuffle across the place not comprehending the language. This time he goes up against the “Kaikan,” ie the Japanese branch of The Company; as with Harknett’s volumes, the Company is a global consortium of criminals, with each country operated as its own fiefdom. Stark, in hiding after the events of the previous book, gets into it this time because the Japanese stewardess he picked up on the flight comes back to her “flat” one day all beaten up; turns out her boss as the airport works for the Kaikan and wants the poor girl to start smuggling dope on her flights. She refused, and got beaten up for it. 

So there’s no grand plotline connecting Angel Of Destruction to previous volumes of The Revenger/Stark. The volume Wells most refers to, of course, is the previous one, which is the only other one he wrote. But even then, it’s just in passing; we know that Stark busted up some Company business in Spain. This of course goes hand-in-hand with the loosey-goosey approach to “continuity” in ‘70s men’s adventure. And also just to get clarify, even though this was the final volume of the series, there is no definite end; by the end of Angel Of Destruction John Stark is on a plane bound for his next confrontation with the Company – wherever that might be. 

My only problem with the novel is that it starts off so great, with so much violence and sleaze…but then eventually morphs into the same senses-deadening onslaught of overstuffed prose, go-nowhere subplots, and tedious action scenes as in the Terry Harknett volumes. But I mean, not that bad. I mean Angus Wells doesn’t waste pages detailing every single thing Stark does while in combat like Harknett did, at least. Also, Stark is slightly less self-centered here; he does end up worrying about Yukie, yet another hotstuff Japanese babe he picks up…and presumably the titular Angel Of Destruction. 

But folks, Angus Wells is guilty of some of the worst misdirection I’ve ever encountered in this regard. Early in the book we have the Japanese Kaikan members gathered to excitedly watch as Stark’s stewardess girlfriend is interrogated. And handling the interrogation is this s&m Japanese mega-babe who is described thusly: 

This is where the “I can’t believe this is British pulp” comes in, as the leather-babe proceeds to “torture” the bound gal in a particularly interesting way: 

As I read this, I was thinking to myself, “Surely this must be the Angel of Destruction, and she’s going to have a run-in with Stark at some point.” I was expecting that the bondage babe would be this evil hell-bitch, the kind of pulp villainess I friggin’ demand, and the novel seems to be headed this way when Stark, via crazy plotting, ends up staying in a house…with this very same bondage babe! Stark hooks up with some expat Americans (we must take Well’s word that they’re American, given that they say stuff like “We’ll bring the car round,” like absolutely no American speaks), and they give him a place to stay – with this mega hotstuff Japanese hooker chick, who specializes in the bondage scene. And she and Stark, of course, have a lot of chemistry, though the ensuing sex isn’t as explicit as the above excerpt. 

But folks…she isn’t an evil hell-bitch! Indeed, it takes Angus Wells forever to even explain all this, but the bit with the bondage gal “torturing” Stark’s stewardess girlfriend was all “just a job!” Indeed, bondage gal had no idea the girl was even being tortured; she just thought it was a bondage gig, and left before the poor stewardess was even hurt. Friends, I cannot tell you how disappointed I was by this unexpected turn of events. And yet, it follows the same surreal vibe as the Harknett volumes; Wells clearly seems to be tying to disparate plot threads together, with the busty bondage gal – who speaks perfect American English, for reasons never explained – arbitrarily turning out to be Stark’s housemate while he lays low…from the very same Company sadists who hired the bondage babe, earlier in the book. 

Anyway, her name is Yukie Tamasara, and Wells brings her to life more than Harknett did his female characters. For one, she fights against Stark once she knows being with him will put her life in danger, as if she’s aware of the fact that every single other such girl in Stark’s life was unceremoniously offed by Company thugs. Here is where Stark is much different in Wells’s hands; he understands the girl’s frustration and does his best to keep her safe. The two feature in a long car chase in which Yukie’s new car is torn apart; this is where those plot threads are tied together, as she happens to mention she purchased this car with the payment she received for a certain job, and Stark starts asking questions. 

But like the Harknett books it all just becomes deadening with too much detail; there’s a lot of incidental stuff, like a one-off character taking his last heroin trip, or other stuff with the Japanese Kaikan dudes in-fighting. That said, Wells does certainly play up the sleaze angle, with the old Kaikan boss being into gay s&m stuff and enjoying sitting around and watching a buff Japanese dude sodomize an American dude. Like Harknett, Wells populates his Company with total freaks, as if they come off like skewed reflections of straight society instead of a criminal organization. Wells certainly has his tongue in cheek; there’s even a very, very odd in-joke with one of the minor American characters being named Jim Rockford. 

The finale is another of those overdone action scenes that just keep going on and on, with Stark armed with something called a Self Loading Rifle, or SLR as it’s called throughout. Apparently this thing almost gives him superhuman powers, blasting helicopters and such out of the sky. Now let me tell you how The Revenger ends. Spoilers of course, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Well anyway. Stark has given Yukie the task of purchasing him a plane ticket “anywhere” out of Japan. He gets on board after taking out the Kaikan guys, ready to launch his next battle on the Company wherever he lands (Wells doesn’t even tell us where that will be)…and he turns to find Yukie in the seat next to him. Angel Of Destruction ends with Yukie slipping to the floor to give Stark a blowjob, even though they’re on a commercial airliner, and with that the novel – and series – comes to a close. 

Anyway, Angel Of Destruction started off great, making me expect a super-sleazy blast of ‘70s crime-pulp fun, but unfortunately it turned into the same chore of a read as the previous Revenger/Stark books were.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

New title from Tocsin Press

Just wanted to let you all know that there’s a new book out from Tocsin PressSuper Cop Joe Blitz: The Maimer, by Nelson T. Novak. Here’s the cover: 

Sgt. Joe Blitz, that tough 1970s New York cop who featured in The Psycho Killers, is back in another sordid tale which sees him up against a Satanic snuff-flick cult. 

You can check out the back cover copy and read the first few pages of the book here

And let’s not forget the other books currently available at Tocsin Press… 

The Undertaker #2: Black Lives Murder, which was another of the best books I read last year – I mean if you get the first one you should get this one, too! 

If you like thigh-boot wearing Nazi she-devil vixens, and you like John Eagle Expeditor, then you’ll certainly enjoy John Falcon Infiltrator: The Hollow Earth

The Triggerman: Brains For Brunch, in which Johnny Larock, the Triggerman (who is of course not to be confused with The Sharpshooter or The Marksman), satiates his hunger for Mafia blood!

Mentioned above, Super Cop Joe Blitz: The Psycho Killers is the previously-published adventure with Joe involving a rather grisly rape case.

And like the old Pinnacle house ads said, there’s more to come…

Monday, May 8, 2023

MIA Hunter #12: Desert Death Raid

MIA Hunter #12: Desert Death Raid, by Jack Buchanan
June, 1989  Jove Books

Bill Crider returns to MIA Hunter with another installment that finds Mark Stone and his team venturing out of their old ‘Nam stomping grounds and opertating in a never-named country in North Africa. Parts of Desert Death Raid reminded me of ‘70s adventure-pulp novel Valley Of The Assassins, in fact, and given that Bill Crider himself was an admirer of that novel, I’m going to suspect that any such similarities are intentional. 

One thing I’m happy to report is that Stone’s girlfriend, Carol Jenner, does not appear and is not even mentioned in this one; in the previous volume, which was by Arthur Moore, Carol had been retconned into a shrill nag who bossed Stone and the others around like she was the series protagonist. So I was happy to see she was gone without a trace this time around; and hell, for that matter, Stone this time is propositioned by two lovely women, and while our hero does not give either of them the goods, he also never once thinks about his girlfriend back home. 

That though is still the line of demarcation between ‘70s men’s adventure and ‘80s men’s adventure. That’s right, friends, Stone is offered sex by two lovely babes and turns ‘em both down, like several times. Imagine John Eagle doing such a thing! It’s all about the mission in the ‘80s, all about the action and the guns and stuff, with none of the sleazier indulgences of ‘70s men’s adventure. It’s curious, because Crider seems to be catering to that earlier aesthtetic, with both women propositioning Stone at the oddest of times – I mean like “during a sandstorm in the middle of the desert” oddest of times – but then he’ll have Stone turn the women down. So it’s like Crider is at least going through the motions of catering to the earlier demand for sleaze in the genre, but it actually comes off even worse that Stone constantly spurns the attention. It would’ve come across better if none of it even ever came up. 

Well anyway. Crider even further delivers a vibe similar to the ‘70s with a “sweats” opening in which some poor nameless woman is the prisoner of some Arabic jackals in a fortress in the desert. The author capably brings this woman’s plight to life, with her desperate attempt to escape…only to be rounded up by the jackals, who have kept her here for nearly a year. Similar to the openings of earlier installments – only in those cases it was usually an American male prisoner who’d been stuck in a ‘Nam hellhole for decades – this sequence will not be returned to until late in the novel. 

There’s no elaborate setup for Stone and team, either: we meet them as they’re already on location in this country in North Africa, and even Hog Wiley and Terence Loughlin aren’t privy to all the details of the mission. As we’ll recall, Stone’s team now officially works for the US government, and Stone has taken this last-second job from the CIA, to rescue the embattled president of this country from his own people, who are rioting against him. There’s also a Russian defector here for Stone to bring back to America. This new government backing for Stone leads to the occasional deus ex machina, like when Stone and team are saved by the somewhat random appearance of a helicopter in the Sahara near novel’s end. 

Bill Crider continues to be one of the few authors who served as “Jack Buchanan” who manages to give Loughlin any personality, with the Britisher mostly being the dry-wit straight man for wild Texan Hog Wiley. And Crider also gives Hog some memorable dialog, again having him refer often to his homestate of Texas – which makes sense, as Crider himself was a Texan. The only character who does not much come to life is Stone himself, who comes off as rather cipherlike here. He also has a penchant to “growl” his dialog, to such a humorous extent that you get the impression the guy’s more animal than man. If I’m not mistaken, Michael Newton poked fun at this in his How To Write Action-Adventure Novels. Or wait, maybe Newton was poking fun at how Stone’s full name, “Mark Stone,” was repeatedly stated in both the dialog and the narrative in one particular volume of the series…I think it might have been standalone volume Stone: MIA Hunter. But it’s been over ten years since I read Newton’s How-To book. 

Crider isn’t much for the bloody violence, though. There seems to be less action in Desert Death Raid than previous volumes of MIA Hunter, with only a few pitched battles. One of the first occurs right after Stone and team arrive on location; this is a somewhat humorous scene as they watch a battle being fought, the rebels against the president’s men, and then “improvise” a way to get around them. But it’s very much a “get shot and fall down” sort of affair, with none of the arterial-jetting bloodshed I demand in my men’s adventure. Crider does come up with the memorable phrase “blasted his head to flinders,” which he likes so much that he actually uses it twice in the book. I don’t even know what flinders are, but the line sure sounds cool. 

There’s a fair bit of coutroom intrigue as the embattled president is surrounded by enemies, some of them in his own entourage. There’s also his sexy daughter, Helene, and “Al,” aka Alyonya, a super-sexy Russian defector. “The woman virtually radiated sex,” Crider informs us, as if taunting us with the potential for the ensuing boinkery that would have been expected if Desert Death Raid had been published in 1973 instead of 1989. Instead, Stone often muses on the “spark” that exists between Alyonya and himself, not that he does anything about it. And as mentioned, Helene even makes a pass at Stone, only to be shot down; she ends up engaging one of her father’s men in some off-page screwing…screwing which Stone interrupts and prevents from resuming, as it occurs during a trek through the desert and might attract enemy forces, or some other such buzzkilling shit. 

For the most part Desert Death Raid is comrpised of a trek across the Sahara; first via an armored limo (one stocked with booze, much to Hog’s delight), then via helicopter, and finally on camel. Periodically the group will be attacked by the rebel forces, or Touregs in another sequence. Crider captures the desolate setting and the heat of the desert sun, and again it all made me think of Valley Of The Assassins. There’s also a bit of plotting here, as Stone learns that Alyonya has some secrets – a bit that plays out unexpectedly for sure, and does remind the reader of something the more brutal heroes of ‘70s men’s adventure might do. Indeed, the playout of this subplot is so unexpected that the last chapter of Desert Death Raid is focused on Stone coming to terms with what he himself did and why he did it; I almost got the impression that this last chapter could’ve been written by series editor Stephen Mertz, so as to keep readers from thinking “hero” Mark Stone was a total bastard. 

As mentioned the opening sequence of the imprisoned woman comes back up at novel’s end; turns out she is the president’s wife, kept here by certain traitorous members of his cabinet, and Stone decides to go save her. This is even more along the lines of Valley Of The Assassins, with Stone and team infiltrating a fortress deep in the Sahara. It’s pretty cool, not to mention a nice way to cater to the (former) series template of Stone and team serving in a “prisoner rescue” capacity. 

Overall Desert Death Raid was one of the better volumes of MIA Hunter. Crider returned for one more volume, and I’m sure it will also be a good one.