Monday, May 16, 2011

John Eagle Expeditor #3: The Laughing Death

John Eagle Expeditor #3: The Laughing Death, by Paul Edwards
July, 1973 Pyramid Books

This was Robert Lory's first go as "Paul Edwards," and his entrance provides a definite boost to the Expeditor series. I enjoyed the previous volumes, which were penned by Manning Lee Stokes, but I found them a bit too padded out, with an uninvolving protagonist and anticlimatic finales. To be sure, The Laughing Death is still a bit too padded -- unnecessary padding seems to be a staple of this series -- but Lory does a much better job of weaving the extranneous bits of sociological and cultural information into his narrative.

The threat this time out is "The Final Laughter of the Celestial Bliss," aka a lethal laughing gas which works much like the stuff the Joker used in the '89 Batman film. It leaves a twisted leer on the corpse's face and everything. The gas has been devised by Father Tan, an aged Triad ruler who was believed dead. Instead Tan has been operating behind the scenes for the past few decades, and now attempts to unite the various tongs into one organization. The weapon to unite them in their goal of global domination will be this gas, which Tan has created in a secret fortress in the jungle wilds of Sumatra.

All of this is relayed in the first half of the book, which hopscotches back and forth from the perspectives of various minor characters. Once again, John "Expeditor" Eagle himself plays a supporting role in the first half of his own book; we meet him in the opening pages when he challenges a former trainer to mortal combat, crippling him. Then Eagle disappears while Lory builds up the suspense via several Chinese and Sumatran characters.

This is the same thing Stokes did in his volumes, but Lory does it better, though the overwhelming cultural detail gets to be grating. The main character here is Mary, a chemist who happens to be an undercover Communist agent; she is captured by Father Tan and used to work in the gas-making facility in Sumatra. There are also a few Sumatran natives who buy it in drawn-out sequences, as well as Hsui, Father Tan's right-hand woman, a former prostitute whom Tan has remodeled into a haughty destroyer-of-men.

Following the template of previous volumes, Eagle is finally called into action in the middle half. His boss, Mr. Merlin, locates the Sumatran fortress and sends in his one and only Expeditor. The following sequence is very Rambo: First Blood Part II, with Eagle slipping into the fetid jungle in the middle of the night and hooking up with his native guides. Eagle expected only one guide, but the man has brought along his sister; she immediately makes herself available to Eagle in the curtained-off area of their boat as they make their way downriver. Lory writes the ensuing sex scene in exceedingly purple prose, which makes it all the more entertaining.

Once they're on foot in the jungle the action gets underway. As in previous volumes, Eagle must fight local forces unrelated to the major plot as he makes his way to his objective. But as usual Eagle has all of his high-tech equipment. If any men's adventure protagonist could've been turned into a Mego toy, then it would've been John Eagle: he has his fancy bow and dart gun of instant death, as well as an assortment of vials which blow stuff up real good. But most importantly there is his "plastic suit" which can't be punctured and which keeps Eagle's body temperature at the perfect level. There's also a "chameleon device" which when activated blends the suit into the background, meaning that Eagle is basically The Predator several years before that film. Lory introduces a few changes to the suit: now Eagle also has an "opposite setting" for the chameleon device, which makes the suit glare against its surroundings. This function is to allow Eagle to stand out when he's being picked up by air transport, but here he uses it to scare the bejeesus out of some superstitious locals. And finally Lory changes the headgear: rather than the visored helmet of Stokes, Lory gives Eagle a hood and face mask with infrared goggles. If you check out the bottom right of the cover, you can see the artist's interpretation of Eagle's suit.

The final assault on Tan's compound is well-staged, if a bit anticlimatic. Not as bad as in the Stokes volumes, but close enough. The reason is because Eagle's missions always go off without a hitch. Sure, he has unexpected setbacks with armed locals attacking him on his way to his objective, but Eagle always kills them with little fuss. And when he infiltrates the enemy base, he again accomplishes his missions with no major problems. I guess this is why Merlin hired the guy, but still, it makes for few thrills for the reader.

However the same can't be said for Eagle's accomplices. In true men's adventure fashion, the protagonist's friends suffer whereas the protagonist himself does not. Both Sumatran guides buy it in gory fashion, the girl especially. Lory piles on the lurid stuff in the very end, with the girl caught in an elaborate Chinese torture device, sort of like an Iron Maiden, with each "level" filled with different deadly things: a pack of starved rats on one level, poisonous snakes on the next, etc. It's a definite creepy crawly moment; the worst bit is the section devoted to the genitals.

I guess this is another staple of the Expeditor series, as each novel gets more and more lurid as it goes on. When Eagle first infiltrates the base, he runs into Hsui, Tan's concubine. He shoots her up with a hypodermic to interrogate her, but doesn't realize the experimental serum has an unexpected aphrodisiacal side-effect. This serves to make the already-horny Hsui demand that Eagle take her...right there and then. So Eagle does as ordered, screwing Hsui on the floor, right here in the middle of his "penetration" (sorry, couldn't help it) into an enemy base.

As I wrote before, the Expeditor series is almost like a blast of testosterone. The "male mystique" is prevalent here; Eagle is the alpha male of alpha males, and sex is always presented as a nigh-on battle, with Eagle conquering women with his manhood. The women who aren't throwing themselves at Eagle instead try to destroy him...only to find themselves falling into his arms regardless. And Eagle himself cares little for them; in early sections we again hear about Eagle's "girlfriend" (whom we've yet to meet), an American Indian girl he plans to marry someday, but who lives a few hundred miles from Eagle's forest retreat. Despite his (tepid) love for this girl, Eagle early in the novel still plans to go into the city to find a woman for some quick and casual sex. As if he needs to go to the trouble; he gets enough tail on his missions.

The action scenes here are well done, but this series doesn't delve much into the gore. Eagle goes for quick and clean kills, either using his trusty dart gun or blowing people up with his explosive vials. And with his chameleon suit, which as stated is bullet and blade-proof, he's pretty much indestructable, and cuts an easy swath through the ill-equipped enemy forces. In a way it's like the old TV show Airwolf, where the high-tech 'copter was always going up against outdated Hueys or whatever. It's like zero competition.

I sound like I didn't like it but I really enjoyed The Laughing Death. Hell, I'd even go so far as to say the Expeditor series is one of my favorites. I like how it combines international intrigue, pulpish plots, commando action, spy-fy gadgets, purple-prosed sex, and a lurid vibe. It's also fun to read such a non-PC book. Once again we get all sorts of introspection from Eagle about his "savage nature" -- ie, his Apache Indian upbringing (though Eagle is of 100% Scottish heritage, he was raised by the Apache). So there are long snatches where Eagle belabors over the difficult meshing of his "white man civility" with his "Indian savagery."

Speaking of Eagle, Lory does a good job of making him (somewhat) human. In the Stokes books all Eagle cared about were his missions, and we got little feel for his thoughts or emotions. Lory still has Eagle as a primo shit-kicker, a guy who will get the job done no matter the cost, but he plays up his warring internal nature and also has Eagle afraid that he may someday become a "thrill-killer." This is why Eagle challenges his old trainer to mortal combat in the opening pages; Eagle is so action-starved that he needs to feel some bones crush beneath his fists. He prays for a new mission, so he can get out into foreign terrain and test himself against enemy forces. This leads to an intriguing idea: what if someday Eagle himself went haywire, and Merlin was forced to send someone after him? Hell, it happened in the Lone Wolf series.

Lory served up the next volume as well, trading off with Stokes and Paul Eiden (who doesn't enter the picture until #7: The Ice Goddess) through the rest of the 14-volume series. I look forward to reading more of his books.

1 comment:

Grant said...

As always with femme fatale characters, I'm wondering what happens with the Hsui character. Somehow I usually prefer the ones who STAY bad to the ones who are won over by the hero in that "Goldfinger" tradition. From the description of Hsui, it definitely sounds like the story could go either with her.