Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Baroness #4: Hard-core Murder

The Baroness #4: Hard-core Murder, by Paul Kenyon
May, 1974 Pocket Books

This is a special volume of the always-fun Baroness series, as it melds three of my favorite genres: men's adventure, trash fiction, and toga porn. It takes a while to get going, but once it does Hard-core Murder proves itself as one of the best installments yet.

The threat this time out isn't as global as in previous volumes; rather, a snuff film has gotten into the underworld which shows a notable D.C. wife having on-screen sex while all sorts of anti-government images flash across the screen. A man in an animal mask takes advantage of the obviously-doped woman in what is intended as a "screw you" message to the Establishment. (What's interesting is this is the same plot as another novel I reviewed here, a few months back: Sexual Strike Force, a 1972 paperback original by Alex Henry. I'm sure "Alex Henry" is just as much a psuedonym as "Paul Kenyon," so were the two one and the same? Or is it just coincidence? Who knows.)

The Baroness is busy frolicking with an Irish filmmaker in Italy when she gets the call. Her assignment is to destroy all copies of this film as well as the people who made and distributed it. Assembling her vast team, she sends each of them off with particular assignments. The Baroness herself will try to infiltrate the world of pornographic films -- presented here as a shadowy racket controlled by the mafia. In fact two rival mob factions are at war to control this arena: the Org and the Syn, and both want ownership of the snuff film. Finally, it develops that the Syn is bankrolling the world's first million-dollar budgeted porn film, and they hire porcine director Sully Flick to helm it. Flick it turns out is the man behind that snuff film, but this is brushed over and it's never satisfactorily explained why he even made it.

The first half of Hard-core Murder focuses on the Baroness's search for existing copies of the film. This volume is unusual in that the graphic sex scenes aren't as freqent and page-consuming. It's a much more plot-heavy affair, but strangely moves slower than the previous books. The Baroness wants an "introduction" into the world of porn-watching and so recruits that very same Irish filmmaker she was boffing back in Italy. The poor sap flies across the world to meet up with her in New York City just so he can escort her to a party in an upscale suite in the downtown area, where a film-world friend of his will be screening a new porn film for his guests.

This turns out to be the snuff film in question, and while the guests are busy getting stoned on grass or wired on cocaine a bunch of mafia thugs bust in and start killing everyone in sight -- including the poor Irish sap. In this way the Baroness proves herself just as dangerous to her acquaintances as any other '70s men's adventure protagonist; and besides it's all kind of stupid as the Baroness, with her global fame and connections, could've easily gotten an invite to the party without the poor guy.

Anyway, this sequence is another of those thrilling Baroness-versus-mobsters scenes which features our girl plummeting out of the highrise building with the aid of a handy spy-fy floating device, only to storm back inside and trap the mobsters in a descending elevator, where she blasts them apart one by one. The scene continues on as the Baroness discovers that another faction of mobsters has escaped with the actual film; she follows them to their film-developing lab and launches a late-night raid on the compound, assisted by a few of her teammates as well as her handler, "Key."

One of the guests at that party was a notorious actor named Mitch (a trash fiction-esque analogue of the young Marlon Brando); sneaking back into the apartment in the battle's aftermath, the Baroness overhears him instructing the party-thrower to call the mafia to clean up the mess. The Baroness realizes then that this guy is her "in" to the porn ring. Conveniently forgetting her dead Irish lover, the Baroness "investigates" the best way she knows how: screwing Mitch silly for a few days.

When Mitch gets a late-night phone call that sends him out, the Baroness figures this is her chance. She follows his car all the way into the Nevada desert. Here Sully Flick is filming his million-dollar porno on the estate of a Howard Hughes-type baron. The place is colossal, with full-scale reproductions of the monuments of ancient Rome: the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, etc. Sully intends to capture the decadence and violence of the Romans: the gladiator combat will be as real as the sex, and he will throw his fake "Christians" to real lions and other trained animals which will tear them to shreds.

As expected The Baroness is captured, and Sully, inspired by her fame and beauty, decides to give her a featured role. Joe Skytop, one of the Baroness's top men, is also here; in a subplot his mission was to get a job as a porn cameraman, and after various trials of his own he too has ended up in Sully's desert funhouse. Kenyon only hints at the bloodshed of the ensuing scenes, where tigers and rams and other beasts rape and eat the extras while a chained "audience" in the Colosseum is forced to cheer.

Finally it's the Baroness's turn, but of course she proves herself more than a match for the various animals Sully sends after her, thanks to a hidden weapon or two. Hard-core Murder also features the longest yet scene of the Baroness fighting nude; indeed she's nude throughout the final quarter of the novel, Kenyon always sure to mention her "bouncing breasts." Once she and Skytop have created a riot by turning Sully's elephants against him, the Baroness chases the director into the desert, where we have a nice scene of our heroine fighting "mano e mano" with an equally-nude foe: the so-called "Iron Man," Sully's well-endowed and muscular leading man.

I preferred the globe-trotting feel of the previous volumes, but Hard-core Murder was still an enjoyable installment of this short-lived series. I also appreciated that less pages were taken up with endless sex scenes, and also the Baroness's teammates were for once given something to do. All told, this is just another 200+ pages of sordid, graphic fun.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Penetrator #4: Hijacking Manhattan

The Penetrator #4: Hijacking Manhattan, by Lionel Derrick
April, 1974 Pinnacle Books

This was Chet Cunningham's second go as "Lionel Derrick," and though I was a bit hard on his first contribution to the series, #2: Blood On The Strip, I have to say Cunningham redeems himself in a big way here: Hijacking Manhattan is a whole bunch of lurid, trashy fun, and is probably my favorite volume yet of the Penetrator series.

This fourth volume also proves the line of demarcation between the two Lionel Derricks. Whereas Mark Roberts, author of the even-numbered volumes, delivers hard-edged thrillers along the lines of The Executioner, Chet Cunningham instead delivers sordid trash more in the vein of The Sharpshooter. Also, Mark "Penetrator" Hardin himself is a different character, depending on the author: in the Mark Roberts-penned books, Hardin is a tough s.o.b. who kills the bad guys with impunity but shows mercy when necessary, and is at heart a "good" guy. However in the Cunningham books Hardin is a psychopath more along the lines of Johnny "Sharpshooter" Rock, a nutcase who kills, tortures, and maims anyone who gets in his way. If the Penetrator was coming after me, I would pray for the Mark Roberts version.

Hijacking Manhattan could just've easily been a volume of The Sharpshooter or The Marksman. A cabal of black radicals calling themselves Black Gold has united in New York City, working with the Red Chinese to bring down The Man. Lead by a hateful little bastard named Abdul Daley, a guy actually kicked out of the Black Panthers for being too radical, Black Gold has begun a war against the nation. The novel truly preys on the fears of the conservative white male, circa 1974; Daley and his brothers (all of whom Cunningham repeatedly describes as "black" so there be no confusion) will stop at nothing to destroy the white man's world and usher in a new era of Black Power. Already they have destroyed one subway station in NYC and have threatened to destroy more if there demands are not met.

After a brief respite from his recent adventures in D.C., as documented in the previous volume, Mark Hardin gets on the case. This leads to one of the most enjoyable and unintentionally (?) hilarious sequences I've yet read in men's adventure fiction: Hardin, as white as the Hardy Boys, attempts to go undercover as a black man. Using makeup and a wig, he even walks the streets of New York City, attempting to learn how to "act black." It's like Soul Man with guns. What makes me suspect this entire sequence was an intentional joke is that Hardin is instantly discovered -- by an airheaded secretary at the Abdul Daley-run auto paintjob garage, no less.

About those disguises: this is another difference between the two Lionel Derricks. For Chet Cunningham also plays up the spy-fy elements of the series; Hardin is always wearing some sort of disguise, and even wears disposable gloves which have fake fingerprints on them, gloves which look like real skin. This is a nice "bit" which gives the otherwise-bland Penetrator a nice spin. However as mentioned his disguise fails in this instance and so Hardin must revert to his usual method of investigation: ie, killing everyone.

As these things happen in the world of men's adventure fiction, Hardin eventually meets up with a gorgeous gal who helps him: Joanna Tabler, who claims to work for a private detective firm but whom Hardin suspects is really a government agent. The two have instant chemistry -- Hardin has Joanna strip all the way down when he meets her, to ensure she isn't wearing a wire -- but our hero keeps her at arm's length, not wanting to get involved with a woman (apparently forgetting that he slept with another woman in the previous volume).

Meanwhile Abdul Daley and his gang bring New York City to its knees. Their demands are always carefully stated and go off without a hitch. First they insist upon a black female cop delivering the initial payment of ransom money -- money they demand if the city wants to prevent another bombing. In a lurid sequence they abduct the cop and gang-rape her; the last we see of this unfortunate character she's hog-tied to a hotel bed, wondering how long until she's freed. Did Cunningham forget about her? The next ransom-paying sequence is more humorous, as Black Gold demands that the millions be delivered by "a midget in a Honda Civic." There's more hilarity as Hardin watches the TV newscasts of the failed attempts by NYC cops to stop Black Gold, the newscasters snidely berating the cops for their stupidity and many failures. Hard to imagine in today's "unbiased" media.

Hardin gets in several battles and tortures various stooges, showing no compunction for age or innocence. In one WTF? scene he cripples some poor college kid whom Hardin suspects of Black Gold-alliance just because the kid's a member of a Black Power movement -- a nonviolent one at that. In another scene Hardin mauls a pair of Asian youths who run drugs; the first kid he carves up with a knife and then squirts lighter fluid into the open wounds, lighting them up with a match; the other kid he nearly strangles and then ruptures his ear drums. And yet, despite all of this we learn that Hardin "can't shoot a woman," one "Puritan" trait that he cannot shake; we learn this when Soo Lin, Red Chinese operative and Abdul Daley's lover, tries to kill Hardin, and Hardin finds himself unable to shoot back at her. It goes without saying that Hardin learns to overcome this failing of his before novel's end.

Of course it all leads up to a full-on assault by Hardin on the Black Gold compound, which is filled with trained and armed militants. This is a taut scene and very well done. Hardin, again in his "thermal suit," goes in alone with various weapons, including an Uzi and a few white phosphorous grenades. This must've been one of the first appearances of an Uzi in men's adventure fiction, as Cunningham spends a few paragraphs explaining it. This sequence comes off like 24 a few decades early, as Hardin discovers that Black Gold has an experimental virus which they plan to unleash on the city; Hardin, outgunned, must get the virus out of the compound before it blows. And again Hardin takes more damage than the typical men's adventure protagonist; he gets shot in the chest in the climax and must crawl, half-dead, for an awaiting helicopter.

After a bit of field surgery in Joanna Tabler's apartment, Hardin is ready for a brief vacation with the lady in Miami or somewhere equally sunny. This implies that the two are about to become an item -- it's clearly stated that Joanna has fallen in love with Hardin -- but a brief glance through the next volume shows that Joanna does not appear. Oh well. The Penetrator can't be tied down by any one woman!

I really enjoyed this trashy and fun installment and now look forward to continuing on with the series.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Widow

The Widow, by Pierre Rey
November, 1978 Berkley Medallion
(Originally published in France as La Veuve, 1976)

This is Pierre Rey's sequel to his bestselling The Greek, and while it's just as over-the-top as its predecessor, it still suffers from the same failing: namely, despicable characters who do little to redeem themselves.

Don't get me wrong; trash fiction is known for deliciously malevolent characters, characters the reader loves to hate. However such characters must be balanced by "good" or at least likeable characters. When every single character is despicable, the effect is lost, and it actually backfires on the writer: for why would anyone continue to read a novel in which he or she hates every single character on display?

Just as in The Greek, Pierre Rey excels at capturing the jet-set glamor of the haughty elite, going out of his way to drag each of them through the mud in various harebrained situations and bizarre predicaments. But what more could we expect from the co-creator of TNT? Rey has a genius for creating over-the-top situations which resolve in unexpected ways. He also has a genius for creating oddball characters with equally-oddball names. It's just that, in this case at least, I had a hard time stomaching it.

Maybe the fault was mine, as I began The Widow immediately after finishing The Greek. And this is a sequel in the true sense, for The Widow begins in the exact same scene in which The Greek ended. Indeed the transition between the two novels is seamless (despite The Widow having a different English translator than The Greek). But without a break between the novels it was hard to endure another 346 pages of backstabbing, malicious, hateful, and duplicitous characters.

As in the previous book, the protagonist takes much of the blame. Peggy Baltimore, nee Satrapoulos, nee (briefly) Kallenberg, is probably the worst of the bunch. All the more shocking when you realize she is the novel's analogue of Jackie Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis. But, just as she was in The Greek, Peggy here is a conniving, self-centered, self-involved trollop who does little to endear the reader. In fact she's a more unlikeable protagonist than Socrates Satrapoulos was, which is really saying something.

The Widow opens with Peggy ditching the man she has just married: Herman Kallenberg, shipping magnate and lifelong enemy of Peggy's recently dead husband, Socrates Satrapoulos. Peggy's ditched Kallenberg because she's just been informed of a discovery, made through illicit means -- namely, that Satrapoulos left a hidden clause in his will that, if Peggy still bears his name two years after his death, she will inherit 50 million dollars. So, Peggy attacks Kallenberg on their wedding night and takes off. (Admittedly Kallenberg deserves the rum treatment; the guy did cause the death of his wife Irene in the previous novel, after all.)

When the narrative picks up a year later, in 1974, Peggy learns that she's been framed: there is no hidden clause and she will not get 50 million dollars. We also learn that in this time she has racked up all sorts of bills in her jet-setting life (in the course of which she has also ignored her three teenaged children). So...what? Are we supposed to feel sorry for her? Outraged that she's been screwed over? Instead I cheered, but Rey intends this woman to be our hero. Thus we have the major problem with The Widow. It's quite difficult to root for a hero you despise.

Whereas The Greek was all about the glamour of the jet-set, with wealthy people hopscotching about the world in their yachts and private jets, The Widow becomes more of a half-baked comedy. Peggy it develops is wanted by a whole host of agencies: the Baltimore clan, who want to use her name for the upcoming elections; a famous tabloid writer named Lucy Madden who hates Peggy and wages a smear campaign against her; and finally a shady right-wing organization which is prepared to "neutralize" Peggy if necessary. Meanwhile Peggy is on a hunt of her own, determined to marry a mega-wealthy man within 30 days, as she's down to her last $300,000 dollars -- and that's not nearly enough money for her to live on. She sets her sights on an 82 year-old billionaire named Archibald Knight.

Meanwhile there's a subplot with "Lone," aka Charlene, Peggy's 17 year-old daughter (who was not even mentioned in the previous novel). Ignored and abandoned by her mother, her father Scott long since dead, Lone now drifts around with other rich kids, smoking joints and falling in love with "Quick," a good-looking guy who wants to be a famous race car driver. This subplot is also wearying as Lone proves herself just as despicable as her mother -- and also, Quick is such a self-involved ass that you wonder why Lone (and, eventually, Peggy herself) is so crazy about him.

As the novel goes on the sequel nature is dropped and it becomes solely about Peggy Baltimore and her pal Lindy Nut trying to snare a wealthy husband for Peggy. The characters from The Greek are no longer mentioned, and indeed a whole slew of new characters appear, people who supposedly have been friends/lovers of Peggy for years, but suspiciously went unmentioned in the previous novel. This has the unfortunate result that Peggy is the sole star of The Widow, which makes for tough going for the reader. How long can you read about her throwing tantrums at her servants while scrambling to come upon enough money to pay for her mounting debts? And it's not like we're talking about a Jackie Collins sort of anti-heroine, such as Joan Collins would, Peggy doesn't even have that much panache.

There are a few oddball characters to brighten things, as expected from Rey: Sliman Ben Sliman, an Emirate business representative, who flies around on his own jet which has been custom-fitted into a sort of harem on wings, complete with a rotating supply of whores. Then there's gossipist Lucy Madden, an obese, sixty year-old virgin who has made her name creating scandalous stories about celebrities. She lives in an apartment filled with birds; one of them, a grackle named Arthur, has been trained so that when Lucy calls him "little hooligan," Artur will shriek back: "Fat slut! Tramp!" and Lucy gets off on it.

But these characters are not present enough to save the novel. I hate to say this, as I loved TNT, but The Widow is just not very good. I'm guessing it's intended as a comedy, yet another spoof of Harold Robbins-type novels, just as its predecessor had been. But at least The Greek had more of an emotional balance, a few genuinely moving moments. At least in that novel, characters (eventually) learned the errors of their ways. Not so in The Widow, where Peggy is just as self-involved in the end as she was in the beginning -- and, worse yet, even comes out on top.

At least I'm not alone in my dislike of this novel. Whereas The Greek featured several industry reviews on the front and back cover, The Widow has none. Which brings to mind the old "if you've got nothing good to say..." cliche. Not only that but Berkley Medallion dropped Rey after this novel; his next two novels translated into English were published by Bantam.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Greek

The Greek, by Pierre Rey
April, 1975 Berkley Medallion
(Originally published in France as Le Grec, 1973)

TNT fans take note: Pierre Rey was one half of the duo who created and wrote the whacked-out adventures of Tony Nicholas Twin. The Greek was published in Rey's native France in 1973, five years before he and comics writer Loup Durand united to become "Michael Borgia," the psuedonym under which the TNT novels were originally published. However I can happily report that The Greek is just as whacked-out as anything in TNT.

In fact, it might even be more whacked-out, as The Greek takes place in "the real world," whereas TNT was more of a parody/satire of the men's adventure genre and so was free to verge on utter fantasy. The Greek was Rey's first novel and it was an instant mega-seller in France, soon translated into several languages and published to international success. It is a roman a clef in the tradition of Harold Robbins (Robbins's name is pointedly referenced in Berkley Medallion's back cover copy), its subject of course being "that billionaire shipping magnate" Aristotle Onassis -- here named "Socrates Satrapoulos." All of the expected characters from Onassis's life are here, just with new names: Jacqueline Bouvier/Kennedy/Onassis is instead "Peggy Baltimore," John F. Kennedy is "Scott Baltimore," temperamental opera diva Maria Callas is temperamental pianist "Olympia Menelas," and so on.

But the reader must not expect a typical roman a clef. Anyone who has read TNT will know that there's nothing typical about Pierre Rey's way with a narrative. Rather, this is a chaotic, parodic, insane trip into the world of the super-rich, and though some of the incidents herein reflect what happened in reality, The Greek is moreso a sort of over-the-top satire on the Harold Robbins-type novels that were all the rage at the time.

The Greek spans the years 1952 to 1973, with the majority of it taking place in the 1950s. This is a digressive novel (aka very French), and due to its parodic nature it lacks the primal drive of a Harold Robbins novel. Indeed, there's no unifying thread to this novel; Satrapoulos is as distant to us as any of the other characters, and instead the book comes off more like unrelated sequences of jet-setting rich characters doing goofy things. A quick point of reference: readers of TNT will remember Arnold Benedict, the mutli-millionaire who acted as both Twin's boss and archenemy. Throughout the series Benedict was always throwing hissy-fits and getting into bizarre and goofy predicaments. Imagine if Benedict had been the star of TNT and you'll get the feel of this novel.

The plot thrust I guess is the rivalry between Satrapoulos and his brother-in-law, German shipping magnate Herman Kallenberg, but this plotline is obscured due to the massive cast of characters on display. Whereas the usual Robbins-type novel would have really played up the Homeric rivalry between the two billionaires, Rey instead devles into this angle only occasionally, which as a result neuters any sort of drama or suspense. To tell the truth, I eventually came to find The Greek a bit wearying; the intentional goofiness of it wore thin over the course of its 474 pages of tiny print. (This mass market paperback edition by the way is littered with spelling and grammar mistakes.)

If only there had been more of a central narrative to hold everything together. Instead the novel hops from character to character and the Satrapoulos/Kallenberg rivalry is lost in the jumble. In between his business ventures Satrapoulos chases several women: there's Helena, gorgeous daughter of another Greek shipping magnate; there's Olympia Menalas, famous pianist given to monumental furies; and finally there's Peggy Baltimore, socialite heiress and widow of a slain president. However these love stories are scattered through the novel; the union with Peggy doesn't even occur until the final quarter. Despite this all characters are present and accounted for from the opening pages, and so we see how they move about in their own lives before coming into contact with the titular Greek, Satrapoulos.

None of the characters are likeable, which is another pity. You'd figure the Jackie Kennedy analogue at least would have some redeeming qualities, but she's just as money-hungry, fame-obsessed, and predatory as the others. In fact she comes off poorly throughout the novel, only reaching a sort of hummanity in the seconds before her husband is assassinated (in a complete Dealey Plaza riff). Kallenberg at least has some personality about him, what with his inhuman drive to conquer his brother-in-law Satrapoulos; everything about the man is focused upon dominance, as he equates sex with violence. The family that unites these two men has its own share of problems: Satrapoulos's first wife Helena and Kallenberg's wife Irene are daughters of Medea Mikolfides, overbearing matron and inheritor of her dead husband's shipping empire. These women squabble and scheme throughout the narrative. And Satrapoulos himself comes off like a complete ass, using and abusing everyone in his quest for superiority in all things. In fact I actually enjoyed Kallenberg more, because at least he had more entertaining traits.

So, there really isn't a strong central narrative, but there are many bizarre and goofy moments, just as one would expect from the co-creator of TNT: A "Christmas in August" party at Kallenberg's London estate which culminates in an attack by Satrapoulos-funded thugs; an old woman killed by vultures; an entire sequence devoted to Peggy Baltimore having her pubic hair trimmed into the shape of a heart; an Arabic sultan who gets off on nicking the bare bottoms of prostitutes with a blade and then paying them for their troubles with jewels; Satrapoulos's epic battles with the pianist Menelas, complete with him temporarily abandoning her on a remote island, leaving her with nothing but some food and a Bechstein piano; even a re-enactment of the assassination of the Oswald analogue (here given the awesome name "Slim Scobb").

I'm pretty certain now that Pierre Rey wrote the majority of the TNT novels himself. The tone of The Greek is identical to that of the TNT novels and the writing style seems very much the same, even with two different translators (Victoria Reiter for the TNT books, J.F. Bernard for The Greek). My guess is that Rey and Loup Durand collaborated on the TNT storylines and Rey then handled the actual writing chores on his own.

Anyway, all who enjoyed the adventures of Tony Nicholas Twin and seek a similar fix should check out The Greek. I didn't love it, but I enjoyed it a lot, so much so that I've already gotten the three other Rey novels which were translated into English. Next up is his 1976 sequel to this novel: The Widow, which I will review here soon.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Penetrator #3: Capitol Hell

The Penetrator #3: Capitol Hell, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1974 Pinnacle Books

Mark Roberts returns as "Lionel Derrick," again delivering a taut narrative that plays out like one of Don Pendleton's Executioner novels. After the inept #2: Blood On The Strip, I was uncertain if I wanted to delve back into the world of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin, but this volume was just as good as the first -- which also happened to be written by Mark Roberts.

Capitol Hell picks up right after the previous volume, and this volume itself ends with tidbits which take us right into the next. I like this attempt at a serial narrative -- it's better than the freeflowing chaos of the The Sharpshooter, at least -- but it gives the unfortunate impression that Hardin is one busy s.o.b., going from one campaign to the next. Even James Bond took the occasional vacation.

The novel opens with a goofy coincidence; Hardin just happens to be driving behind a mobster who gets in a fatal crash. It would've made more sense if Hardin was tracking the guy, but whatever. Anyway, Hardin inspects the crash, finds the half-dead mobster; the mobster whispers something about "SIE" with his dying breath, and Hardin goes off, perplexed. Meanwhile, an assassin pulls an Oswald on the press secretary to the President of the United States -- a man who, coincidentally again, just happens to be friends with Hardin. The Penetrator heads for DC to investigate. He soon encounters the name "SIE" again, as it comes up in relation to his dead press secretary friend.

SIE it develops is the Societe Internationale d'Elite, a VIP club in the District which houses a secret cabal of James Bondish-supervillains who plot the takeover of the world. The SIE's club activities are open to all and so Hardin goes to a few events undercover, learning gradually that there is more afoot here than simple DC partying. In another goofy coincidence, one of the "inner chamber" members of SIE happens to be a former 'Nam commanding officer who was screwed over when Hardin exposed the black market ring back in the war. When Hardin leaves his first SIE party this guy follows after with some men; a shootout occurs in pitch darkness, and it's unintentionally hilarious because the goons keep crying out when Hardin shoots each of their comrades: "Jesus! He just shot Louie in the balls!!"

The clunkiness of Blood On The Strip returns when Hardin hooks up with a pretty District employee who invites him over to her place; the lady's roommate happens to be a former dancer at the Pink Pussy -- the Fraulein-run casino in volume #2 -- and she instantly guesses that Hardin is the Penetrator. It's another of those WTF? moments. But Capitol Hell has more going for it: the inner chamber of the SIE is a sort of Satanic coven in which the members wear red KKK-type robes and stand around chanting. The hidden level of their club is a torture chamber/orgy den; unfortunately we never see it in action, only when Hardin discovers it after it has been used. It's unfortunate Roberts didn't play up this angle a bit more; he could've easily given us a sleazefest here, but instead only hints at the Satanic insanity of the SIE.

Roberts however scores huge points by finally poking fun at both Hardin's own name and his codename: a few mobsters, re his "Penetrator" title, wonder if he's "some sort of sex freak," and another calls him "that Hard-on guy." I still say this series would've been the greatest ever if it had approrpiated more of a Baroness angle, if Hardin's name really was "Mark Hardon," his mission each volume being to "penetrate" the defenses of some beautiful enemy agent...

There are a wealth of shootouts throughout Capitol Hell, all of them well done. And again Hardin takes more damage than the average men's adventure protagonist; early on he suffers a terrible knifing which would lay up an ordinary guy. Here also Hardin comes off like John Eagle Expeditor; his "Indian" heritage is brought to the fore, with Hardin leaving behind arrow heads with his kills, and he wears a "thermal suit" which makes him look like a "space warrior." And again Hardin uses white phosphorous on his enemies, as he did in The Target Is H -- this is still the cruelest punishment I've yet seen a men's adventure protagonist inflict upon his enemies.

It all leads to a bizarre climax right out of Murphy and Sapir's Destroyer series, with Hardin and a cop friend chasing the head SIE villains through Colonial Williamsburg; Hardin even delivers the final blow with a vintage rifle. After which he hops back on his personal plane and heads back for his home base in California, already planning his next campaign; in another coincidence Hardin learns of something called "Black Gold" coming out of New York City, and now he's determined to find out what it is. This takes us right into #4: Hijacking Manhattan, but unlike Hardin I think I'll need to take a break before I get to it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Pirate

The Pirate, by Harold Robbins
June, 1975 Pocket Books

First published in hardcover in 1974, Harold Robbins's The Pirate walks the middle ground between the epic feel of his 1966 The Adventurers and the coked-out madness of his 1984 Descent From Xanadu. I enjoyed it more than the former but not as much as the latter, which was, well, more coked-out. The Pirate goes to the same crazed heights as Xanadu at times, but other times it's grounded in banal "business meetings" or go-nowhere subplots, many of which seem to have come from the mind of a writer too uninvolved with his story to care. But then, by this point in his career Robbins was a multi-millionaire, and rather than a writer he was more like a corporation, churning out a steady stream of product.

"The Pirate" is Baydr Al Fay, super-rich Arabic entrepreneur who unbeknownst to himself is actually a Jew. In a gripping prologue -- one of the best scenes I've yet read in Robbins -- we learn the story of Baydr's birth in 1933. Two families meet in a raging desert storm: a Muslim husband with a pregnant wife and a Jewish husband with a pregnant wife. The Muslim is wealthy doctor Samir Al Fay, the Jew is grizzled soldier Isaiah Ben Ezra. Samir is desperate for a son; the Prince of Beirut, childless, has decreed that Samir's son will be heir to the throne. Samir has gone to Mecca to pray for a son, traveling with a caravan of his people; Ben Ezra and his wife have ridden alone into the desert, as his wife wanted to give birth to their child in the holy land.

The raging desert storm squashes all plans, and Ben Ezra and his wife suffer miserably, both near death. It ends with Samir's wife giving birth to a stillborn daughter and Ben Ezra's wife dying after giving birth to a healthy son. Seeing the hand of "one god" in this, Ben Ezra gives his son to Samir. Only the two men are aware of the boy's true lineage, as Samir's wife was unconscious during the delivery. The men say their goodbyes, Ben Ezra rides off into the night, and Samir names the child Baydr, vowing to raise him as his true son. It's a taut, effective, and emotional sequence; Harold Robbins by way of O. Henry.

The narrative then jumps ahead to 1973 and, rather than becoming heir to the throne of Beirut, Baydr has instead become a globetrotting millionaire. The Prince saw a grander scheme for Baydr than royalty; realizing the importance the Middle East would gain due to oil, the Prince had Baydr schooled in the West so he could learn their ways. Now Baydr is more Western than Arabic, but still grounded in his (supposed) heritage, and therefore distrustful of the Jews. The sentimental feel of the prologue is quickly forgotten as we meet Baydr in action on his private 707; he snorts a few amyl-nitrate poppers and engages in some friendly anal sex with a pair of hookers. That's one way to introduce your protagonist, I guess.

Now 40, Baydr has an ex-wife, an Arabic girl who only bore him daughters, and a current wife, a blonde American sexpot named Jordana with whom he has two sons. Baydr was given the same promise that his father was; Baydr's 10 year-old son, Muhammad, will be heir to the throne. But like the usual Robbins hero, Baydr comes off more like a self-involved ass than a doting father; he leaves the boys with Jordana, whom he no longer associates with, and instead flies about the world, snorting coke, smoking hash, and screwing prostitutes. He sees Jordana and the boys only occasionally. As for his daughters from his previous marriage, he hasn't seen them since he divorced their mother over a decade ago. This has driven one of the daughters, 19 year-old Leila, into a frenzy of anger, such that she now plots with a PLO-type group of radicals to blackmail the conservative Baydr into working for their revolutionary cause.

This subplot simmers for a while as the first quarter of the novel instead revels in the decadance of the French Riviera in the spring of 1973. Here Baydr reunites with Jordana in Cannes, during the film festival. There's a lot of trash fiction goodness on display, with jet-setter parties along the Riviera, soap opera melodrama, and the expected Robbins weirdness; Baydr treats Jordana like a piece of property, and she gets off on it.

There's also treachery: one of Baydr's top employees in this area is Youssef, who works against his boss to fatten his pockets. Besides conspiring with the above-mentioned Palestinian liberation group (for the money, not the ideals), Youssef also employs his omnisexual lover Jacques to use his "beautiful ten inches" to woo Jordana. Baydr's wife it seems is just as free-spirited as the man himself; this is recounted in another bizarre flashback where Baydr -- our hero, remember -- forces Jordana to snort amyl-nitrates as he basically rapes her, then afterwards tells her he has no further interest in her and that she will be his wife in name only, and also that she is free to sleep with any other man she wants -- as long as it isn't a Jew (note the irony).

Robbins never bothers to explain why exactly Youssef wants to set up Jordana, but who cares, because this sequence is the most entertaining in the novel. We get more coke-snorting scenes in French discotheques as well as the most explicit moment as Jordana hooks up with Jacques's lover, a black American named Gerard, who introduces Jordana to the pleasures of putting cocaine on unexpected parts of the anatomy.

Things settle down as Jordana goes back to California and again reunites with Baydr. Here the novel gets bogged down in interminable business meetings and other scenes of characters talking ad naseum about things they plan to do. Here are also the poorly-spun subplots, such as Baydr hiring an anti-Semite director named Michael Vincent to write and direct a film about the Prophet. This goes nowhere and the Vincent subplot is basically written off. There's also an appearance by a Charlton Heston-type who has sex with Jordana; the man enjoys secretly taping his conquests, and Yousef comes upon the tape. One really gets an idea of how much time has passed when Robbins spends so many paragraphs explaining how a VCR works!

The subplot with Baydr's ignored daughter Leila serves to boost the narrative. We follow her as she trains in a camp for women somewhere in the desert, becoming a grim warrior of the jihad. Her orders are to insinuate herself in her father's life, and to await further orders. The novel winds up for its big conclusion: Leila becomes a secretary for Baydr in his new home base in the Swiss Alps. When Jordana takes the boys on their flight home, Leila and her compatriots hijack it, abducting Jordana and the children to a mountaintop retreat in Baghdad.

A big action scene follows; since the Prince is unwilling to help Baydr (it would look bad for him in the eyes of the pro-Palestine groups to help fight one of their subsets), our hero has no idea what to do. However it develops that one of Baydr's inner circle is a secret Israeli agent. And this agent knows of one man who can help -- a battle-hardened Israeli general who is legendary among the Jews and the Muslims he has fought.

Guess who it is? That's right -- Isaiah Ben Ezra, aka Baydr's biological father. Leading a ragtag team of Israeli soldiers and Yemeni fighters, old Ben Ezra infiltrates into the mountaintop retreat for a late-night attack. It all climaxes with the usual sentimental ending for all concerned, though the Happily Ever After for Baydr and Jordana is a little hard to buy, given all that's happened before. But what the hell. All told, this is another entertaining Harold Robbins nover which races from beginning to end, with only a few bumps along the way.

Special mention must be made of the NEL edition, which really plays up the "pirate" angle -- it's nice but it's misleading, as no character in this novel wears an eyepatch!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Burt Hirschfeld: A Face For The Name

I've wondered for years what Burt Hirschfeld looked like. Thanks to the hardcover editions of his 1978 novel Key West and his 1984 novel Flawless, I finally know. Each book features a photo of the man himself, and he looks nothing like I thought he would.

Here's Hirschfeld on the back cover of Key West:

And here he is from Flawless:

I have to guess that Hirschfeld probably shrugged off those mortal coils a long time ago. As I theorized in an earlier post, it was probably sometime in the early 1990s, as that's when his steady stream of novels came to an abrupt stop.

But as I also stated earlier -- he left behind a huge body of work, one that's ripe for rediscovery.