Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Headhunters #1: Heroin Triple Cross

The Headhunters #1: Heroin Triple Cross, by John Weisman & Brian Boyer
February, 1974 Pinnacle Books

Thanks to Justin Marriott's Men of Violence magazine for bringing this unsung series to my attention. This was the first of four volumes which detail the gritty adventures of Detroit cops Eddie Martin and Jake "TS" Putnam, the "Headhunters" of the title. Members of the Detroit Police Internal Affairs division, it's their job to ensure their fellow cops don't yield to the rampant vice and corruption of Detroit and go over to the other side.

The cover proclaims this as "an exciting new series" and the spine is tagged "Adventure," but The Headhunters series is only nominally part of the men's adventure genre. It's more "Elmore Leonard" than "Don Pendleton." This is basically just a crime novel that revels in its own lurid nature, filled with gutter-talking conmen and gangsters with colorful names (and even more colorful wardrobes), of two-bit hoods who go on murder and theft rampages. And our two heroes have none of the diehard resolve of the usual men's adventure protagonist; indeed Martin and Putnam barely even appear in the novel, and have little to do with the plot, climax, or resolution.

Eddie Martin is the boss, a WASP-type married into money who considers himself one of the few uncorrupted cops on the Detroit force. But behind his conservative veneer lies a true hellion, most notably in the turbo-charged engine he's installed in his VW bug. But otherwise Martin's one of those guys who likes to play old jazz on the high-fi while reading the newspaper.

Putnam is the new guy, a young black cop who likes to gamble and wears the latest superfly threads. A confusing bit in the narrative is that authors Boyer and Weisman can't seem to figure out how they want to refer to Putnam. Sometimes he's "TS" (which stands for "tough shit"), other times he's "Putnam," and most confusingly sometimes he's referred to as "Jake." (It took me a second to figure this out...because when Putnam's first referred to as "Jake" in the narrative there's no indication we're reading about was only after jumping back to the brief bio handily inserted into the text that I learned that Putnam's first name is "Jackson," thus "Jake!") One of the basic rules of writing is to only refer to your character by one name, and one name only -- other characters can call him by a million different names, but the author must be consistent.

At any rate the villains are the true protagonists of Heroin Triple Cross. They take up around 85% of the narrative, and there are a bunch of them: first and foremost there's Henry Paquette, the series' recurring villain. A hulking black former cop, Paquette is now the kingpin of Detroit's inner-city crime ring who poses as a law-obeying entrepreneur; Paquette's a grandiose figure who steals the entire book. His core group is just as showy: there's Dovell, Paquette's hit man, another black tough who happens to be gay and apparently gets off on murdering; and there's Sonny Hope, an over-the-top type who dresses as loudly as possible and occasionally bursts into impromptu song. Then there's "Gloves" Lewis, a black cop on the take; he works for Paquette and lives a double life, one as a cop with a bad attitude, the other as a high-roller who lives in a fancy penthouse.

Finally there are three black youths who provide the thrust of the narrative. Street punks who kill cops, steal cars, and rob Paquette-owned businesses, all within the first few pages. The entire city wants them, but most of all Paquette, because they have taken from him. He tasks Gloves Lewis with killing them, all while making it look like they were resisting arrest. During this Martin and Putnam (I almost typed "Martin and Lewis") attempt to crack down on Paquette, trying to figure out who his inside man is. The novel alternates between all of the above characters, again giving it the feel moreso of a grungy crime story than your average men's adventure novel.

As you no doubt noticed from the character rundown, the majority of the characters here are black. And Boyer and Weisman, white authors, go out of their way to have them "talk black." In many ways Heroin Triple Cross comes off like one of those latter Blaxploitiation movies, the majority of which were written by white screenwriters, filled with a sort of psuedo-jive dialog. The n-word is dropped more times than on a rap album, so if you're sensitive to such things, you've been warned. But then the novel would scrape the nerves of anyone too sensitive: this is one sordid, lurid piece of trash fiction, filled with gruesome murders, cops who fart and discuss their own stink, and some very unerotic particular a platinum blonde bimbo who "does blacks for kicks" and who does something so "shameful" with them that even her own cheeks burn with embarrassment at the thought of doing it. (Boyer and Weisman however leave what exactly this is a secret; my own sordid imagination came up with all sorts of stuff.)

According to Justin Marriott's informative article, Weisman and Boyer were journalists for Detroit's Free Press newspaper, and there's a definite air of legitimacy to the inter-office rivalries, police corruption, and gangster vice, no doubt gleaned from their many interractions with Detroit's cops and scumbags. Per the authors however this first novel was quickly written, and it shows. There are a ton of grammatical and narrative errors strewn throughout, things which could've been caught with a cursory edit. But in a way this rough nature lends Heroin Triple Cross a sort of underground charm -- it reads like a fictional counterpart to the Nark! pieces Joe Eszterhas was writing at the time over in Rolling Stone magazine (which supposedly were mostly fiction themselves).

I've got the following three volumes in the series and look forward to them, particularly Quadraphonic Homicide, the final volume and the one Justin investigated the most in his article.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Kung Fu Avengers, by Michael Minick

The Kung Fu Avengers, by Michael Minick
1975, Bantam Books
(Original UK printing, 1973)

I discovered this obscure novel by a total fluke, researching the Bruce Li movie Kung Fu Avengers (aka Soul Brothers of Kung Fu). This Michael Minick novel came up in a search result and I instantly bought it, due to my lifelong obsession with what I've coined "Bell Bottom Fury," aka '70s-tastic kung fu thrills.

Ben and Jade are blonde-haired causcasian youths raised in a Buddhist temple in China after the death of their missionary parents. Despite their alien looks the siblings are treated as normal members of the Silver Forest temple, and are trained in the sect's powerful kung fu style. But when an attempt to escape Communist China, to teach "The Way," results in a fatal battle with Chinese soldiers, Ben and Jade find themselves uprooted and returned to their "true" home in New York City.

Here the novel jumps ahead a few years to 1975, where Ben and Jade have settled into this new life. Trouble looms again when their friend, a sort of Martin Luther King for Asian Americans, is murdered by the Black Phoenix tong. The siblings again find themselves in the thick of it, fighting off wave after wave of kung fu-fighting thugs, eventually working for the CIA to take out the leader of the Black Phoenix. (This finale it must be noted is at odds with the rest of the book, with Ben and Jade outfitted with a variety of gadgets, including rocket packs!)

My main problem with this novel is how wordy it is. It's not so much an action-adventure as it's a lecture on kung fu philosophy. The novel also lacks many thrills. Minick jumps to and fro in the narrative, even going back to the 1940s after the escape-from-China opening, and he has a habit of over-explaining everything. Not only that but each character speaks in the most verbose fashion possible; this is one of those novels where no one uses contractions and speak in tones so lofty even Roy Thomas would be embarrassed. And the fights are repetitive to the point of monotony.

I also don't understand who this novel was for. What concerns me most is something printed on the flyleaf -- basically, the age ranges this book is acceptable for. In other words, Kung Fu Avengers is a junior reader's novel, despite the back cover's blurb of drugs and death and other sordid details. Apparently the novel was published by Corgi's children line in the UK! This is not mentioned anywhere in the Bantam edition, which actually makes Kung Fu Avengers appear like some martial arts-centric men's adventure novel.

But then when one considers how there's no cursing in the novel, no overt violence (indeed, Ben and Jade go out of their way to merely knock their opponents unconscious), and absolutely zero sex (other than a brief mention of the "sordid" things the Black Phoenix leader has his slave-girls perform with one another for his entertainment), then it all clicks. It's strange, because according to the author bio Minick was an editor and writer for True Action and other men's adventure magazines, so one would expect the novel to be a bit more lurid.

Believe it or not, I'd actually recommend Joseph Rosenberger's kung fu-fighting Mace series over this.

Monday, September 20, 2010

TNT #6: Ritual Of Blood

TNT #6: Ritual Of Blood, by Doug Masters
March, 1986 Charter Books
(French publication, 1980)

Ritual of Blood was #6 in the 7-volume US publication of the TNT series, but it was actually the ninth and final volume of the original French publication, where it was titled Le 10e Mari De Barbe-Bleue (aka Bluebeard's 10th Husband, cover below). So, even though there was one more installment of Tony Nicholas Twin's wild adventures in the English version of this whacked-out series, as far as the original French was concerned, this was it; this was his last ride.

This is probably my favorite volume of the series. It's like the psycho-sexual horror version of the series, TNT gone giallo, injected with a healthy dose of dark comedy. Taking the war of the sexes to surreal extremes, Twin's enemies this time out are a cabal of men-hating women: half of them giant-sized freaks with beards, the other half call girls with stupefying bodies. Their modus operandi is to ensnare multi-millionaire men (shortly after their families have died in some "accident"), marry them and overcome them with a little kinky sex for a few months, and then murder them. Sordid enough, but add into the mix a host of s&m hijinks, mazelike corridors in the guts of the earth which become death-traps, and a shadowy monster which lurks in a pit of darkness and feasts on the severed heads of beautiful women.

The opening half's a bit busy; unlike previous volumes, which were separated into three separate "books," Ritual of Blood narrative-hops for the first hundred pages or so, jumping from Twin in Ireland, to his boss/archenemy Arnold Benedict in Japan (and later an overseas flight), and to a gorgeous, nameless woman currently posing as two different wealthy wives in New York City -- "Bluebeard" herself, this installment's "she-who-destroys-men" (every volume of TNT has had one) -- who is busily ruining the lives of her latest conquests.

Benedict learns via an uber-wealthy acquaintance that a handful of men with over 200 million dollars to their name have gone missing over the past few years, each of them shortly after having married an incredibly attractive woman. These women also disappear shortly thereafter. It all appears to be the work of a mysterious group called Matrix, a sort of Women's Lib movement gone Nazi, women who are dedicated to eradicating male control and putting women in charge of everything (Rush Limbaugh probably read this novel at an impressionable age). The aforementioned "Bluebeard" is the beauty and the brains of the outfit; the brawn comes from Hester Dragut, a seven-foot-tall bearded Turkish woman who commands a similar army of freakish, monstrous women.

Benedict's first thought is to use Twin as bait, to set him up as a millionaire and wait for the Matrix women to swoop in for him. Twin meanwhile is performing his own investigation. In a grisly scene early on, Twin and his "assistant" Clare Hallam visit Twin's multi-millionaire friend in rural Ireland. There they find the entire family murdered. Even the man's children are dead, each of them shot through the mouth. Decapitated bodies litter the mansion and the surrounding countryside. Twin's millionaire friend still lives however, and Twin promises to help find out who committed this atrocity. But after getting to New York City, meeting a dwarf prostitute named Evangeline Tombs, and nearly drowning in a metal maze of congealing plaster, Twin finally relents and takes part in Benedict's scheme.

Here's where Ritual of Blood really gets enjoyable. You can tell this was the send-off for the original series, as all of the supporting characters reappear and interract in ways highly entertaining for longtime readers. For Benedict's plan is for Twin to pose as a millionaire named "John Wayne:" Dawlish, the English soldier nutcase of previous volumes, poses as Twin's older brother as well as the family idiot; Valka the Titan, the hulking Russian powerlifter from The Beast and Killer Angel, poses as Twin's "littlest" brother.

The Matrix gals close in, launching a late-night assault on New York City's Waldorf-Astoria. Suddenly it's as if "Doug Masters" is a pseudonym of Thomas Pynchon; a truly bizarre sequence occurs in which gorgeous call-girls who serve Matrix take on the gorgeous call-girls who work for Corrie Corlington (Arnold Benedict's head of security and a former call-girl herself), blasting away at one another in the plush surroundings with crossbows and silencer-equipped submachine guns. Twin meanwhile meets Bluebeard; her beauty is such that she stuns even Twin, who by this point in the series has had sex with around 200 women or so.

The novel becomes even more surreal. Bluebeard shows Twin that she has four million dollars of her own -- she doesn't want him for his (fake) money. She wants him for a night's pleasure. What follows is one of those over-the-top TNT moments: Bluebeard has had a special "mirror bed" created for the occasion, a bed made of thin mirror which has been attached to a helicopter. The 'copter lifts them off and Twin and Bluebeard have sex on the fragile glass as nighttime New York City glitters beneath them.

Ritual of Blood climaxes with the usual TNT disdain for reality: Twin is taken to a Medieval-era castle which has been rebuilt in the Arizona desert; he is caught in a giant spider web and combats giant spiders and a family of "spider-men;" Corrie Corlington leads a call-girl cavalry charge on the castle, complete with a bugler; Hester Dragut exacts jealous revenge on Bluebeard; and meanwhile Arnold Benedict stumbles around in a full suit of Medieval armor.

Here's the cover to the original French publication, Le 10e Mari De Barbe-Bleue:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

John Eagle Expeditor #1: Needles of Death

John Eagle Expeditor #1: Needles of Death, by Paul Edwards
January, 1973  Pyramid Books

The 14-volume John Eagle Expeditor series answers the unasked question: What if Jack London had lived in the 1970s and wrote mens adventure novels?

Born to a Scottish couple who moved to America and then who both died while he was still an infant, John Eagle was raised by the Apache. Now as a man in his late twenties hes the sort of character who only exists in men's adventure novels: a perfect balance of both heritages, a capable man of action who knows all the tricks and trades of the American Indian, yet who also received an Oxford education.

For reasons this first installment, Needles of Death, fails to explain, Eagle answers an ad in the paper asking for men of adventure looking for dangerous but rewarding work. After three years of training (none of it described  like most mens adventure novels Needles of Death skips over all of the backstory and instead focuses on the mission at hand), Eagle is now a full-on Expeditor, working for the shadowy Mr. Merlin and sent about the world to stop various threats against the United States. Mr. Merlin is a billionaire who lives in a sprawling estate overtop a dead volcano in Hawaii; he answers only to the US President and he has created the Expeditor program in order for the US to quickly take care of incidents with little notice. Eagle is the first (and so far only) Expeditor. In the entirety of Needles of Death the two men never meet; Mr. Merlin keeps his identity hidden from all save the President (whom Eagle does meet  checking the publication date this could only mean, then, that Eagle met with Richard Milhous Nixon! I wonder if they took a photo of the two shaking hands, like Elvis and Nixon?).

For his first mission Eagle's dropped into the barren desolation of the Gobi desert. The Red Chinese have taken over an ancient lamasery in Mongolia, where they appear to be developing a laser weapon which can blast airplanes from the sky. Eagle is armed with a clutch of devices, all of which reminded me of the accessories that would come with an old GI Joe or Big Jim doll: a skin-tight chameleon suit which is bullet and blade-proof; a mini-bike which can be assembled in seconds and runs on tires inflated with poisonous gas; a metallic longbow and steel arrows; a gas-powered gun which fires needles of death; shoes stuffed with an experimental plastique which can blow apart an entire city block. And that's just the tip of it: Eagle also has pills for food, pills for water, and a batch of other stuff which fits in the innumerable hidden pockets in his chameleon suit (which also features a motorcyle-type helmet with visor that allows him to fully meld into his surroundings).

Eagle meets with his contact, who of course turns out to be an attractive woman: a Mongolian named Mary Choja who kills with the stoic reserve of an Apache and who keeps right up beside Eagle in the freezing hell of the mountains, despite not having a heated bodysuit of her own. Eagle treats Mary roughly throughout; we never really get in the man's head, find out what makes him tick, but we quickly learn that hes so dedicated to his mission that all else pales to it. So he pushes Mary along with force, getting angry with her if she wants to rest, or that she wants to free her brother (who it turns out is Eagles other contact, and who has been captured by Mongolian bandits). There's an aura of male mystique to Needles of Death, of the type found in 1970s men's magazines: Eagle feels himself superior, the strong white male who can retain the savagery” of his Indian nature due to his western side; however Mary, a Mongolian, cannot. There are all sorts of ethnic snap-judgements throughout Needles of Death; whole sections of it would be considered unpublishable in today's tepid world.

Thanks to Justin Marriots Men of Violence magazine Ive learned that Manning Lee Stokes served as Paul Edwards for this installment of the series as well as the next. Needles of Death in its way perfectly captures the nature of its protagonist and the series itself. Like Eagle the novel melds two natures: adventure fiction, with picturesque descriptions of mountain crags and rough terrain, and action fiction, with gunfights and commando raids in the dead of night. Its not a particularly violent novel, with Eagle killing quick and efficiently, but there is a bit of sex.

However theres no real sense of danger. Eagle is presented as such a marvel of manhood that there's never any question if he might survive this first mission. The novel also lacks a strong villain; actually there is no villain, Eagle instead fighting anonymous soldiers and bandits as he plots to destroy the laser station. But despite this it's still a good novel, with strong writing, good dialog, and wonderful depictions of the hellish Mongolian environment; in fact it reads like a real novel and not just a first volume in a series, and, like Peter McCurtins The Killing Machine and Andrew Sugars The Enforcer, it works just as well as a standalone novel.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath

The Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath, by Bruno Rossi
October, 1973 Leisure Books

Confirming the freeflowing nature of this series, The Sharpshooter #2 makes no mention of the events in Sharpshooter #1: The Killing Machine, and indeed appears to take place long after, with protagonist Johnny Rock now a veritable legend, a bogey man for mafia families far and wide. He's also a wanted man by the police and the Feds, and pulpy detective magazines constantly run features on him.

It's also very obvious that this volume was not written by Peter McCurtin, author of The Killing Machine. Blood Oath lacks most of the subtleties of that previous volume and further confirms the slapdash nature in which these lurid novels were churned out: several times the narrative mistakenly refers to Rock as "Magellan," ie the protagonist of the Marksman series. However Blood Oath is more lurid, violent, and exploitative than the entirety of The Killing Machine, and that's a good thing!

At 154 pages of big print, Blood Oath is more of a novella. Rock comes to the tiny New York hamlet of Xenia, where he hopes to rest for a few weeks before launching a campaign against the European mafia in France. But as these things go, Xenia isn't as relaxing as Rock had hoped, for a powerful mobster named Fanzoni just happens to live in a high-security fortress right across the way from the farmhouse Rock has rented. (It would've made more sense if Rock had known this and had come to Xenia for the express purpose of wasting Fanzoni, but no matter.)

Fanzoni runs a global emporium of goods; no matter what item a person might want, Fanzoni will have it in one of his many warehouses. These goods are all black market items, but it must be stressed that Fanzoni doesn't trade in heroin or prostitution or anything of the such. As far as mafia dons go, he's pretty harmless, and he sells his goods like a regular businessman. I only mention this so we can get a bit of perspective on the psychopathic mind of our hero, Johnny Rock. For once again Rock comes off as more twisted and cruel than the "villains" he has dedicated his life to fighting.

Rock becomes friends with kindly old Milly Bice, who runs Xenia's little country store. Bice's store is on the crossroad which leads into Fanzoni's gated estate; several times a day truck-driving mobsters will use Milly's phone to have some stooge open the gates so they can haul their loads onto Fanzoni's estate. Rock instantly suspects something's up with Fanzoni. So to investigate, Rock basically murders a few of the truckdrivers in cold blood, shooting them in the throats and heads. (Always in the heads; headshots appear to be Rock's calling card, though I wonder if this is a carryover from the Marksman series -- which I have many volumes of but haven't yet read.)

There are other wild goings-on; a local "gypsy" girl named Carla has the hots for Rock, throwing herself at him -- but it turns out Carla knows who Rock is, being as she is a dedicated reader of those aformentioned detective magazines. Carla's dropped a dime to the mag and now a male and female pair of reporters are staked out in the dense forest surrounding Rock's rented farm, ready to snap photos of him. And in addition to this there's Jane, a gorgeous gal who was Rock's friend in high school; a former hippie who has run back to her rich daddy, Jane repeatedly makes advances on Rock, but he gives her nothing but Jim "Slaughter" Brown-type dismissals (ie, "You'll get yours soon enough, baby.").

This is a simple-minded novel with limited scope and vision...but it's a hell of a lot of fun. The dialog is pretty good, with this version of Rossi deftly handling the homespun country chatter of Milly and other Xenia locals, and he nails the dimestore tough-guy patter of the goons in Fanzoni's employ. In fact, the tone of this novel (and the violent nihilism) reminds me very much of Gannon, so I wonder if Dean Ballenger served as "Bruno Rossi" this time out. Rock himself is the personification of the stoic tough-guy: in addition to the numerous mobsters he wastes, he also takes the time to soundly beat an innocent bartender who has the audacity to take umbrage at Rock's smart mouth. I mean, Rock pounds this guy into burger...for no reason.

But then, that's our hero. Rock is such a nutjob in Blood Oath that I laughed out loud many times while reading. He kills everyone, even the guys driving Fanzoni's trucks, most of whom when you think about it probably aren't even "real" mobsters. And he's not just a nutjob, he's a twisted nutjob. When Rock discovers Carla's betrayal and the presence of the detective mag photographers, first he calls Carla over, meets her nude on the porch, has her strip down (after which she "practically rapes" him), and then has an also-nude Jane come out on the porch to stir things up! All of this to "distract" the photographers and to trap Carla. It all ends with the two photographers and Carla chained to a bed up in the farmhouse attic, all three of them nude and zonked out on drugs. Rock then has Jane take several photos of the naked and chained trio, but sadly we never learn what his "plans" are for these photos, even though he states that he has something in mind for them.

Astride a horse Rock launches his campaign on Fanzoni's estate, galloping through the forest and blasting away goons with his Mossberg rifle and an Uzi. After this Jane is kidnapped by the surving mobsters; once Rock discovers this he kills a few more truckdrivers and then steals one of their rigs so he can infiltrate the estate. (Why he doesn't just gallop right back over there again is a mystery...and I should mention that throughout all of this those three people are still bound and naked up in the farmhouse attic, completely forgotten!)

Rossi saves the most lurid stuff for the final pages: Jane is gang-raped by twenty or so goons and Rock doesn't arrive until the final goon is taking his turn. But since Rock only has 9 bullets in his Beretta, he has to wait until most of the mobsters leave to "go have a few drinks"! After this the novel rushes headlong to its conclusion, relating most of the incidents in synopsis. Rock finally does free the chained trio from his attic, and he gives the raped and beaten Jane a few aspirin (!) for her suffering. Rock's just a caring guy after all. Blood Oath ends with Rock and Jane on their way to JFK airport, where we assume Rock's about to depart for his European campaign.

This is a fast-moving tale, mostly well-written despite the occasional "Rock/Magellan" gaffe. As always, Johnny Rock's psychosis is entertaining in itself; once again we read in disbelief as the people in his life suffer solely due to their friendship with him, while Rock himself emerges unscathed.

3/9/12 UPDATE: I've determined that this novel was actually written by Russell Smith, and was originally intended to be an installment of the Marksman series. In fact, Blood Oath appears to take place directly before Marksman #8: Stone Killer, in which Magellan travels to Paris to take on the European mob; note how "Rock" mentions throughout Blood Oath his intent to go to France for that very purpose, and indeed how the novel itself ends with our hero heading to JFK airport to catch the next flight to Paris!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Smuggler #1

The Smuggler #1, by Paul Petersen
September, 1974 Pocket Books

The cover says "The Smugglers," but this is really volume #1 of the Smuggler series by Paul Petersen, onetime Musketeer and former child star on The Donna Reed Show. In 1974 Petersen made a deal with Pocket Books -- he churned out this 7-volume series for $75,000. However a tiny note on the copyright page states that a guy named David Oliphant helped out with the writing chores "on this and all succeeding volumes of the series," so I wonder if this was a Tekwar sort of thing -- ie, how that series was released under William Shatner's name, even though he himself didn't provide the actual writing.

The Smuggler is Eric Saveman, all-American guy who just happens to smuggle dope. This novel appears to be set in 1969, so there's a sort of majestic, countercultural air to it, flying marijuana up from Mexico in unchartered airplanes. Saveman's a college grad who served in 'Nam and now lives in opulence with two gorgeous and blonde twins, M'Liz and M'Lady (!). I had high hopes (so to speak) that this series would feature a dopefiend protagonist, but unfortunately Saveman himself abstains from drugs. Actually this makes sense, as dope and violence just don't mix...they're an impossible combination, as Bill Hicks explains 5 minutes into this clip.

Saveman's ritzy life is upended when he discovers that his father, Doc Saveman, got involved with some jewel-smuggling (smuggling appears to be a family tradition) back in WWII, and now Doc's the last surviving member of the circle: save for one other, a shadowy man long assumed dead, who apparently has killed off the remaining members of the circle in order to get the jewels for himself. And now this shadowy man is coming for Doc. It all reminded me of that episode of The Simpsons where Bart helped Grandpa find the lost cache of Nazi gold before Burns could get to it.

This first volume comes off more like an introduction to the series. Nothing much really happens; there's hardly any sex or violence. I mean, Saveman lives with two gorgeous twins who appear to worship him, but Petersen does little to exploit this. And what else are men's adventure novels but exploitation? The writing's also a bit clunky at times, and the majority of the characters -- particularly Saveman's smuggling pals -- are indistinguishable from one another.

At any rate The Smuggler #1 exists mostly to show us how Eric Saveman becomes the superspy of later volumes; imagine Johnny Depp's character from Blow meets James Bond and you'll have the tone of ensuing volumes in the series, which I plan to review as I read.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Confessions Of A Hope Fiend

Confessions Of A Hope Fiend, by Timothy Leary
1973, Bantam Books

Here's a book that went through a lot of byzantine channels on its path to publication, a book Timothy Leary received an advance of $250,000 for (though apparently he didn't receive much of the money), a book that went straight to mass market paperback to get to as many people as quickly as possible. A book that shortly thereafter went out of print and has remained so since its publication in 1972.

This book was co-written by Brian Barritt. A fellow psychedelic traveler and Leary's pal in the early seventies, Barritt published his own bio decades later, 1996's "Road Of Ecstasy" (only published in the UK and mega rare and expensive these days). He's not credited anywhere in "Hope Fiend" (though of course he's featured as a character in the book itself), but parts of this book are so similar to the writing in "Ecstasy" that I asked Barritt via email if he had in fact ghostwritten a lot of "Hope Fiend." He kindly responded that he had.

But I wonder how much so. The thing is, this book is very well-written. It's almost too artsy for its own good. Parts of it seem cribbed from William Burroughs, other parts from James Joyce. Oft times the narrative breaks out into flight-of-fancy literary turns of phrase that I assume are meant to convey the rush of ideas awarded by LSD, and there are word tricks straight out of Joyce (ie "Eye sprang to the window."). According to Barritt's book (and "Hope Fiend" itself), Leary's early drafts of this book (all now lost, according to Barritt) featured even more of the Joycean puns, but I'm convinced the Burroughsian writing is Barritt.

Barritt's influence (or just Barritt himself, ghostwriting) can also be seen in the metaphysical/magickal connotations. This first shows itself in Leary's references to his wife Rosemary Woodruff. Never once does Leary refer to her by name. Instead, she is always mentioned as "She" or "Her," with the first letter capitalized. The same way a mystic would refer to the Goddess - the same way Barritt refers to her (uh, I mean "Her") in "Road Of Ecstasy."

Detailing the years 1970 to 1971, the book opens with Leary jailed in a minimum-security prison in California, busted for possession of a minor amount of marijuana (which according to lore actually belonged to his then-wife, Rosemary, though Leary doesn't state this in the book). He bides his time, meeting his fellow prisoners, one of whom in a literary wink is named Burroughs. Leary skews reality by introducing Barritt into the narrative early, even though the two really didn't meet him until Leary had escaped prison and fled to Algeria. But books need to be more fantastic than bare reality (right?), so Barritt here shows up while Leary's in prison, helping Leary plan his escape and giving him a copy of his manuscript "Whisper."'s not really Barritt! No, in a weird "surprise twist" that's never explained, this Barritt turns out to be an imposter, an albeit well-wishing stranger who just wants to help Leary escape for the kicks.

Leary was really escaped by the Weathermen, which he acknowledges in the book, but the money for the escape was provided by the LSD-as-sacrament group The Brotherhood of Love, something Leary does not acknowledge in the book. Anyway, the book presents the escape as it supposedly happened, Leary climbing the high fence during a minor break in security - all shortly before his fiftieth birthday, an admirable feat in itself. From there he's whisked away incognito by a group of Weathermen, all of whom Leary rhapsodizes about in the most idealized "freedom fighters for the soul of America" style possible. He briefly meets Weathermen leader Bernadine Dohrn, another recipient of Leary's gobsmacked idolatry (he describes her like some raven-haired beauty from a Hollywood blockbuster...after consulting a photo of Dohrn I can't say I agree with the good doctor).

Under an assumed name and wearing a disguise, Leary flies to Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver, co-ruler of the Black Panthers, awaits him in his kingdom. The idea is, Leary, with his counterculture clout and heavy support from the white kids in the colleges of America, will unite with Cleaver, with his streetwise power and heavy support from the black kids on the streets of America, together engendering a nationwide insurrection in the US, leading to a better tomorrow. Unfortunately (?), it didn't happen.

If a movie's ever made out of Leary's life, then this chunk of it, with Leary and his wife ensconced within the paranoid confines of Eldridge Cleaver's Black Panther palace, would make for excellent material. It wasn't so excellent for spineless Leary, though. No, he allowed the increasingly-sullen Cleaver to harass and eventually imprison him - Cleaver, a lifelong con, had trouble getting away from the "cops and robbers" game, and there in his Algerian kingdom, realizing he was the ruler and no longer the "robber," decided he'd need to play "cop." It was the only game he knew, and Leary's LSD methods had no effect on him; Cleaver disdained drugs. So as you can see, this was not the dream-team that would bring about a new, psychedelic era of peace and love.

But yeah, Leary was spineless. We read dumbstruck as Cleaver bullies Leary to no end, and Leary offers no resistance. He puts up with it, offering us the lame excuse that Cleaver's people were imprisoned by whites for 400 years, so why should Leary get upset about being confined to lockdown in his hotel room for 4 days? But it just builds and builds, Cleaver outright threatening Leary, telling him what to do and when to do it, even installing a female Black Panther in Leary's apartment to keep an eye on him. Meek Leary accepts it all. You can't help but wonder how that other acid guru of the sixties, Ken Kesey, would've reacted. I figure Kesey would've taken Cleaver to the floor with a chokehold, forcing LSD down the Panther king's throat.

The real Brian Barritt shows up, having driven to Algeria to meet Leary and get him to pen an introduction for his book "Whisper," written while Barritt was imprisoned in England for carrying drugs. This is something else Leary doesn't mention, having presented "Whisper" earlier in the narrative as an already-published book. A few others come by to visit the safeguarded Leary, among them a reporter who apparently sells out to Cleaver, blaming Leary and his wife for ruining Cleaver's trust. It all comes off as a rather dry and rote political thriller, only the Burroughsian drug-trips in the desert saving it from total boredom.

The book ends right when it gets interesting. Leary escaped from Cleaver to Switzerland, where he became involved with the German krautrock scene. This is yet another fascinating period in Leary's life, recording the album "Seven Up" with German rockers Ash Ra Tempel and Brian Barritt (who provided his own view of these days in his "Road Of Ecstasy"). At the same time Leary and Barritt became fascinated with Aleister Crowley, with Leary even thinking he was Crowley reincarnated. But Leary's narrative features none of this, save for the title, a witty combination of Crowley's "Diary of a Drug Fiend" and his posthumously-published bio "Confessions."

Regardless, "Hope Fiend" cuts off with the arrival of "Goldfinger" (who literally shows up in the last sentence of the book): a millionaire drug dealer/arms financier who got Leary the $250,000 payment for this book...though in exchange Goldfinger himself retained the rights to it (just check the copyright), as well as the rights to all future Leary publications.

It would be great to have a republication of "Hope Fiend," with an afterword detailing what happened to the major players. After his brief tenure with krautrock (and "Seven Up" is one of my favorite albums), Leary was caught by US Feds and imprisoned again, this time in solitary confinement. Upon release he was more of a Robert Anton Wilson-type than his former "Tune In" self, talking about outer space colonization rather than inner space exploration. Barritt supposedly went into a decade-long heroin binge which provoked a falling out between he and Leary that wasn't repaired until Leary was on his deathbed in 1996. And Cleaver had the strangest of all fates, from a Black Panther leader crying out for Communist revolution to a staunch Republican in his final years.

The truth is stranger, and all that...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Black Dynamite: The Original Trailer and "Fight Smack In The Orphanage"

Without a doubt one of the best movies of the past few years has been Black Dynamite. Where Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez fell flat on their faces with their Grindhouse project -- which despite being so slavish to the grindhouse films of yore suffered a huge error by being set in the present -- Michael Jai White and director Scott Sanders scored a perfect hundred. Everything about Black Dynamite works perfectly.

I loved the film so much I got the Blu Ray disc, which I've watched several times already. But even though the disc is stuffed with making-of documentaries and around 30 minutes of cut/extended footage, there's still a plethora of material not included.

First and foremost, there's the "original trailer" White and Sanders created over a few days to get funding for the movie. Both men discuss this trailer at length in the Blu Ray commentary track, but it's not included. No doubt this is because the studio wouldn't pay for the rights, because the original trailer is comprised of clips taken from various Blaxploitation movies, with a few shots of Michael Jai White inserted amid the chaos. But everything else is vintage, from the narration to the music. Luckily this trailer was leaked onto the internet:

Once the actual film was produced, White and Sanders went further and created some viral marketing to promote it. A series of four fake public service announcements, featuring Black Dynamite and supporting characters from the film, asking people to help "Fight Smack In The Orphanage." A tie-in with the movie, and wonderfully fact, these four PSAs are some of the best viral marketing I've ever seen.

But due to studio indifference (which resulted in Black Dynamite itself bombing in the theaters) and an idiotic marketing department that didn't know what to do with such clever little pieces of viral marketing, these fake PSAs weren't allowed to achieve their full potential...the Man strikes again.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Mind Masters #1

The Mind Masters #1, by John Rossmann
July, 1974 Signet Books

This is a series I've been waiting to read for a long time. Over the past few months I've tracked down volumes 1 through 4, but only now I've started to read them. So it's with a great deal of disappointment that I discover this series to be so awful.

Mind Masters focuses on Britt St. Vincent, a man with so much backstory that it takes John Rossmann over a hundred pages of tiny type to relate it. In short, Britt was a Ranger in Vietnam, where a landmine blast awoke his latent psychokinetic powers. Transported back to the US he took part in a shadowy, government-funded ESP/psychic warfare research center run by a nutjob military officer. Britt fell in love with one of the women there, and after the two made clear their plans to leave and get married, the aforementioned nutjob accused Britt of being a spy. It all ended with the woman dead, the nutjob dead, and Britt a free man...only he could no longer dabble in ESP-related fields and was forbidden to speak of the research he took part in. But all that was years ago, and now Britt makes his living as an internationally-famous race car driver. Talk about one hell of a career jump!

Britt's contacted by the Mero Group, a consortium devoted to fighting against the psychic warfare centers of the world, no matter if they be in the US or the USSR. Posing as the second-string member of an international racing crew, Britt will now globehop for Mero, looking into various psychic phenomenon. (To say this series was fashioned to capitalize on the various hot topics of the mid-'70s would be an understatement.)

His first mission takes him to Sicily, where a haunted castle might provide Mero with a lead into the untapped psychic webwork which blankets mankind. This castle is medieval as can be, but for some reason Rossmann has it as a fortress built back in the age of Imperial Rome, complete with "vintage furniture" (which in reality would've decomposed over the millennia, but so what).

Promptly upon arrival Britt meets a comely local wench named Maria who speaks perfect English and who offers him a room in her mother's nearby inn. Maria is a Berkley student who comes back home each summer to help her mother; in a harrowing but incidental passage she relates how back at Berkley she was once almost sold into slavery, going into detail about how she was raped and what each man felt like as he took her...all of this shortly after she's met Britt! But other than that Maria's here so Britt can unload various bits of psychic-related knowledge upon her.

In addition to the haunted castle there's a Grand Prix-style race, a counter-team of cyborgs, and "psychic kamikazes" who come after Britt, men who have been programmed to kill with their minds but then die immediately after discharge.

It all sounds enthralling, doesn't it? Too bad the novel is so boring.

Here's the main problem with Mind Masters #1: John Rossmann's writing. He has little understanding of what makes a fictional narrative work, his characters are paper thin (even moreso than the standard trash fiction character), and his dialog is atrocious.

Actually, it's not even dialog. The "dialog" in this novel is nothing more than exposition. Exposition piled atop exposition. Each and every character speaks in the same way, this sort of flat monotone in which they gurgitate facts and information. We read in disbelief as characters will talk for unbroken paragraphs, relaying incredible amounts of information -- the history of psychic research, the rigours of race-car driving, the way their psychic-detecting gizmos work -- with zero emotional content or any sense of humanity. They're all like computers that have been programmed to speak.

If any of you remember the sitcom Cheers, then you'll remember Cliff Clavin, the resident know-it-all who would go on and on about trivial facts. Well, Mind Masters #1 reads as if it came from the pen of Cliff Clavin. It's nothing but pages and pages of one character telling another all sorts of trivial facts about psychic phenomenon or research or what-have-you. And to make it even worse, after every chunk of exposition Rossmann will write something like, "Maria is very interested in what Britt is saying." As if telling us, Look, reader -- my characters are interested in this, so you should be too...

Here's my theory: I think John Rossmann wrote a nonfiction piece on ESP and psychic warfare, and either he couldn't sell it or he decided to "spice it up" and turn it into fiction. But all he did was take his chunks of information and place quotation marks around them. Voila -- instant dialog, instant fiction. Only it's not that simple.

Rossmann writes in third-person, present tense, an unusual style for a men's adventure novel, but a style I've always enjoyed. My favorite novel of all time, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, is written in the same style. But Rossmann is no Pynchon. He has little grasp on the style; rather than capitalizing on the rush, the "you-are-here-now" thrill of present tense, he instead achieves a sort of "see Spot run" simplicity with his passive verbs (Britt IS running...Britt IS thinking...etc). And the opening hundred pages are a nightmare of needlessly-complex prose, flashing in and out of Britt's backstory. It's not complex because it's so deep, it's complex because Rossmann is unable to handle the backstory while retaining the present-tense style.

I can only hope that the next volumes improve. I have no idea who John Rossmann is/was, but later volumes are published under the name "Ian Ross," even though the style doesn't appear to change. So was Rossmann the psuedonym and Ross the real name? Or vice versa?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pulp Fusion: Cheeba Cheeba Mix by Funky Bompa

For the past several years all I've really listened to has been '70s jazz, funk, and soul. Harmless Records's Pulp Fusion series is the best source for this always-fresh music. Starting in the mid-'90s and spanning ten volumes (with volume #11, the "15th Anniversary" set, coming out this September), the Pulp Fusion series features some of the best funky jazz ever put on wax. (I still have fond memories of taking Volume #1 on my honeymoon back in the summer of 2002; I played that CD in our rental car as we drove from Virginia Beach to DC and from there on up to Maryland, my wife constantly shaking her head and asking me to put on the radio.)

Anyway, I just stumbled on this -- an hour-long mix of tracks taken from the Pulp Fusion series, put together by a Brussels-based DJ named Funky Bompa. It's available as a free MP3 download HERE.

Comprised of "bits and breaks from the vaults of the Pulp Fusion series," this "Cheeba Cheeba" mix cherry-picks some of the standout tracks into a consistently-grooving set. It's got some great cuts, from Johnny Hammond's "Shifting Gears" to The Lafayette Afro-Rock Band's "Darkest Light." I just wish Bompa had included Dennis Coffey's "Theme from Black Belt Jones" off of Pulp Fusion Volume #3.

Jazz-funk songs average around 4 minutes as a minimum, so to slice them down to around a minute (or less) each doesn't really give a good representation of the genre. But that's not what DJ mixes are about -- they're about getting to the good stuff, focusing on the breaks and the beats, and Bompa does a phenomenal job.

The perfect soundtrack for the next time you're reading say Iceman or Black Samurai...