Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Narc #2: Death Of A Courier

Narc #2: Death Of A Courier, by Robert Hawkes
September, 1974 Signet Books

John "Narc" Bolt returns with a new publisher and a new cover artist in a second volume that's even better than the first. With a plot taken straight out of a grindhouse film, Death Of A Courier is just as grim, violent, and nihilistic as its predecessor, with the occasional dash of sentimentality. It's even got a bit of sex amid the violence, and the scene depicted on the cover (sort of) occurs in the novel.

"Robert Hawkes" is really Marc Olden, and again Olden provides a plot that's positively byzantine when compared to the average men's adventure novel. His novels come off more like ensemble pieces than the typical protagonist-driven fare of the genre; here John Bolt, despite being the lead character, is just another of the pieces Olden moves about the board. In all of the Olden novels I've read there are always several characters in play, each with their own goals and drives. This makes for a richer reading experience than most men's adventure novels, particularly given that Olden is also a much better author than the genre norm. Taut prose, lean narrative, good dialog. I especially like the bits of dark humor he adds; each scene with Bolt usually ends with our hero delivering a smart-ass line.

Paris Whitman, Bolt's former partner at D-3 (the fictional "Department of Dangerous Drugs") has gone insane after suffering a major beating at the hands of some redneck cops; Paris was working undercover when he got hauled in, and was beaten by the rednecks for nothing more than being black. Paris survives, but his mind does not; he blames his co-agents for not coming to "save" him. Now Paris works for the mob as a top killer, going under the name "The Apache." He has sworn to kill 7 D-3 narcotics agents and so assembles a team of fellow narc-haters. For money they work for the mafia, killing drug couriers. The majority of the couriers on the east coast now work for the Cubans, in particular Vincent DeTorres; Paris has been hired by mafioso Don Rummo, who wants to bring drug-running back to the Family. Rummo's plan is to murder all of DeTorres's couriers so that the suppliers lose faith in the man and begin to use couriers backed by Rummo himself.

John Bolt is caught up in all of this. D-3 discovers that couriers are being killed and, after a shootout in Central Park while riding a horse, Bolt nails one of Paris's teammates, who reveals that "the Apache" is behind it all. Paris has become a bogey-man at D-3; every agent is aware of his vow to kill narcs, and Bolt knows he himself is at the top of the list. Bolt was once Paris's partner and best friend, and so in Paris's warped mind it's Bolt who is most to blame. After a few more shootouts, Bolt goes undercover into DeTorres's mostly Cuban gang, working with new second-in-command Ortega.

The plot seems simple, but again, Olden fluffs it up with the various plots and counter-plots amid the huge cast of characters. Whereas the average men's adventure writer would've played up the whole Bolt/Paris confrontation, getting in lots of treacle about how they used to be best friends and etc, Olden instead focuses more on Bolt being concerned more about a new shipment of "brown sugar" coming into NYC, supposedly the strongest-cut heroin ever to be imported to the States. But to be sure, the Bolt/Paris dynamic is spun out through the narrative, and Olden certainly delivers on it in the effective finale.

There are many great setpieces throughout: the above-mentioned Central Park battle, as well as an endless battle sequence on a snow-bound airport runway which occurs halfway through the novel. Olden even gets in some sordid shenanigans, mandatory for the '70s men's adventure novel, where three hookers visit Bolt and he realizes they have been sent over to distract him so that hired killers can swoop in while he's otherwise occupied. Bolt takes advantage of the situation by having the girls strip down before using them as part of his escape plan. And Bolt gets a little action of his own, hooking up with a gorgeous redheaded stewardess who worked as a courier for DeTorres's gang.

I also enjoy how Olden peppers the narrative with little details on how the drug world operates. A potential drug dealer in 1974 could've come away from Death Of A Courier with several pointers on how to detect narcs, how to set traps for them, and how to increase his profits. You can tell that Olden had done his research. This lends the Narc series more realism than most other men's adventure novels.

All told, this is one of my favorite series, and I look forward to reading the rest of them.


Cullen Gallagher said...

Love your use of the word "byzantine"! That description sold me on the book right there. Off to eBay I go...

Thanks again, Joe!

Holger Haase said...

Wow, thanks for the review. I never read NARC but own half a dozen of the titles after a larger pulp purchase last year. That series has now climbed up the Must Read ladder thanks to your review.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for your comments! Yes, there is a lot more going on in Olden's novels than the average men's adventure books. I hope you can find some copies on ebay. That's where I got mine several months ago; I lucked out and got the entire series for cheap.

Holger, you should definitely check out the volumes you have. Olden's "Black Samurai" gets all the cred but I enjoy the Narc series much more.

Jack Badelaire said...

Time to hunt down yet another series...


Just as not on the agency Bolt works for, "D-3." These novels came out during a time that federal narcotics enforcement was going through a state of flux. In 1968, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, then part of Treasury, moved over to Justice, in the process absorbing a small unit of the Food & Drug Adminstration that enforced laws against non-opiate illegal drugs, thus becoming the Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs. At the same time the Dept. of Justic set up a smaller unit that organized local narcotics officers into small federal task forces to enforce US drug laws at the street level, the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (DALE). In 1973, these two agencies were merged (at the same time absorbing a unit of the Customs Bureau that specialized in nailing drug smugglers), to become the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

With federal narcotics agencies getting reorganized every few months, it probably seemed to Olden that it was best to give his agency a fictional name so it wouldn't become dated.

Some years after ending this series, Olden wrote another novel about a federal narcotics agent called THE INFORMANT. This time the agent worked for the real-life DEA, but one wonders whether it might have been originally planned as part of the Bolt series, but was revised.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the info, Jim. I wasn't aware of the DEA's origins.

And man, that "Informant" book isn't cheap, is it? I see it retails for around $90 from used books sellers! However I see there's now a Kindle edition, so I might check it out sometime.