Monday, February 27, 2012

Able Team #2: The Hostaged Island

Able Team #2: The Hostaged Island, by Dick Stivers
June, 1982 Gold Eagle Books

These early Gold Eagle novels are turning out to be much better than I expected. This one in particular comes off like an action-packed B movie, with an army of bikers taking over the peaceful island of Catalina, right off the California coastline. The three-man Able Team is called in to take care of the problem. Or, as team leader Carl Lyons succinctly puts it: "Kill them all."

The novel plays out very much like the '70s incarnation of men's adventure novels, with a lurid vibe and pulpish plot and villains. In other words, the imprint hasn't yet devolved into the nuke-of-the-month/Team America jingoism of later years. It does though uphold the Gold Eagle philosophy of, "Everything will be fine as long as you have a gun." It also makes cursory mention of the right wing bias that would also become so prevalent in later Gold Eagle offerings; when helicoptering to the island, Able Team is informed by their boss Hal Brognola that the civil rights of the bikers have been "suspended." IE, no need to worry about law and order or prosecution; just kill the bastards.

The writing however is quite good. The cover credits the book to Don Pendleton (who had nothing to do with it) and house name Dick Stivers, but the copyright page of the book credits authors Norman Winski and LR Payne. Winski published several novels over the years, but Payne is a mystery; the only credits to his name are the first three Able Team novels. I suspect the name was the psuedonym of a Gold Eagle editor who polished these early manuscripts to better fit the burgeoning Gold Eagle house style; what makes me suspect this is the last chapter of the novel, which has nothing to do with what came before, and seems to be written by a different author. In it Able Team basically sits around and waits to meet up with Mack Bolan. It just struck me as something an editor might add to the book to remind readers that the Able Team boys are part of a larger universe.

The takeover of Catalina is taut and well-rendered. The bikers are all well armed and, in a prefigure of Chuck Norris's Invasion USA, infiltrate the island in the dead of night and seal it off from the rest of the world. What makes the novel fun though is that the bikers act like bikers, and not like a commando force; most of them would rather tear across the streets on their choppers, get drunk, get high, and mess around with the local women. After killing the sheriff and making a call to the governor with their demands, the bikers imprison the island residents in a community center and bide their time until their demands are met.

A few islanders manage to escape and arm themselves, killing a few bikers and finding cover. But the brunt of the rescue of course goes to Able Team, who are quickly called into action, as the government wants to keep the takeover a secret. Winski does a fine job of juggling the three characters, meaning that the novel doesn't come off solely focusing on just one of them. Also, there's great rapport between the three, including a lot of enjoyable banter, even while the bullets are flying. This again lends the novel a B movie feel.

The Gold Eagle focus on guns also factors in when Able Team is equipped with their firepower for the mission. Their gun supplier lays out all of the equipment, going on and on about each piece. Literally paragraph after paragraph of firearm detail that will likely have gun-porn enthusiasts reaching for the Lubriderm. And of course following the old "rifle hanging on the wall" dictum of Chekhov, each firearm is shown in action as the novel unfolds. Winski excels in the action scenes, pouring on the graphic violence and gore.

The Hostaged Island has the one plot and follows it through to the end. Since the novel isn't long, it all works out perfectly. We know of course that Able Team will survive the mission, so Winksi plays up some truly dramatic scenes with the island residents and their constant danger. He even works in some great stuff like when the bikers keep getting nailed by this secret "commando team" (Able Team of course striking from and returning to the shadows) and so decide to take out their rage on the residents. This involves a plan to basically spray everyone in the community center with gasoline and set them on fire. Winski provides excellent revenge material as well; he makes these bikers truly evil, and all of them get their comeuppance in gory and spectacular ways.

I think this was Winski's only Able Team novel, but his contribution here was enjoyable enough that I'll look out for more of his stuff, in particular his three-volume Hitman series, which sounds like a lot of fun.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Last Buffoon

The Last Buffoon, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1980 Belmont-Tower Books

Back in 2005 I discovered this paperback original in a used bookstore -- a signed copy, at that. Only, it was signed "Leonard Levinson." This confused me at the time, given that the book was credited to Leonard Jordan. It was only later that I discovered that "Jordan" was a psuedonym of prolific writer Leonard Levinson, who among many, many other novels cranked out a few volumes of the always-entertaining Sharpshooter series.

Levinson is known for his series work, written under a host of psuedonyms, but the Jordan name was one he reserved for a handful of nongenre novels, spanning from the mid-1970s on up to The Last Buffoon, from 1980. When I first read the novel a few years ago I really enjoyed it; upon this re-reading, I loved it. Simply put, anyone who enjoys the men's adventure genre or the trashy paperback fiction of the 1970s must read this novel. Especially if like me you've often wondered, Who the hell writes this sort of trash? Levinson offers a first-rate glimpse into the zany life of a paperback writer living in the slummy New York City of the late 1970s.

And make no mistake, Levinson -- speaking here in the voice of his protagonist, Alexander Frapkin -- knows without question that he is writing trash. If you take a look at the cover, you'll note that Levinson is standing inside a trash bin. ("Cover photo posed by professional model," facetiously states the copyright page, but it's certainly Levinson himself; he looks exactly the same as how he describes Frapkin.) But Levinson knows what separates common trash from glorious trash. As he explains early in the narrative:

Besides, intellectuals have contempt for books like mine. They don't realize that the great archetypal hallucinations of our times are contained within so-called trashy books, while literary establishment authors like Updike, Barth, Roth -- that ilk -- are effete dilletantes who should be teaching lit courses in colleges, and in fact many of them are, the scumbags.

Levinson writes The Last Buffon in first-person present tense. We meet Frapkin as he is completing his latest novel, another entry in the Triggerman series, in which hero Johnny Ripelli battles the Mafia. As he's writing, Frapkin's editor calls to tell him to include a scene in the book where a helicopter attacks Ripelli, as this is the image he has commissioned from the cover artist; the editor also confirms that the story is taking place in Miami, and says that he'll have the artist add some palm trees into the drawing. All of this exactly as in the Levinson-penned Sharpshooter #5: Night of the Assassins. Levinson peppers The Last Buffoon with a host of in-jokes, referring to various series novels Frapkin has written, all of them spoofs of ones Levinson wrote in reality.

This is more of a goofy character piece than a plot-driven novel. Lots of stuff goes down in The Last Buffoon but there's no real plot development, which I guess was a nice change of pace for Levinson, given the plot-heavy basis of men's adventure novels. Instead we slum around with Frapkin as he works on his series fiction, gets married yet again (in a scheme worked out with his lawyer, Frapkin marries women who are about to lose their green cards in exchange for cash), does a lot of drugs, tries to hustle a film version of his best-selling porno novel, and even gets beaten up for his writing.

One could say this is a brave novel, because Levinson lets it all hang out. No detail is spared here, particularly when it comes to Frapkin's sexual activities, all of which occur while he is by himself. The idea is, he's as sleazy as the characters he writes about, and he'd be the first to admit it. His paranoia runs rampant and he deals with a wealth of worries throughout the novel, especially concerns over race riots.

There are several hilarious setpieces, my favorite being when Frapkin receives a fan letter for the aforementioned porn novel, yet another book he has written under a psuedonym. Sex is always first on Frapkin's mind and he instantly sets up a date with the woman who wrote him. It turns out to be a set-up; a mobster-type guy waits for him in an abandoned loft, a pair of goons with him, and has them beat up Frapkin. Why? Because the mobster caught his daughter reading the porn novel.

After which Frapkin is even more paranoid, and vows to never put his real name on a book. His chance at a big break occurs toward the end of the novel when a pair of rapists are caught and tell the police they got the idea from a novel they read. You guessed it, the novel was another of Frapkin's. The media exploits the story and sales of the book go through the roof -- all of Frapkin's various novels start selling like hot cakes -- but due to his beating Frapkin instead panics and goes into hiding, coming out long after the media around the event has died down.

For me one of Levinson's greatest strengths is his ability to bring to life any character, no matter how minor. Characters in his novels always jump off the page and The Last Buffoon is no exception. It's like all of his characters have lives outside of the book and are just making guest appearances. Just a few of them here are Frapkin's latest wife, a feisty beauty who determines to clean up Frapkin's pigsty of an apartment; Frapkin's homosexual lawyer who, after spotting Frapkin in a gay bar (where Frapkin was only using the phone) starts making passes at him; Frapkin's drug connection, who accepts Frapkin's trashy novels as downpayment on grass; and a plethora of others, including a crabby socialite who hosts religious gurus in his penthouse suite. Even incredibly minor characters spring to life, like a grammar-focused sales associate Frapkin encounters while shopping.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element though is how The Last Buffoon shows the mind of a writer at work. Frapkin works out his problems and frustrations in his writing; this is most effectively presented when he writes that trio of mobsters who beat him into the Triggerman novel he's writing, having Johnny Ripelli blow all three of them away. In fact anyone who ticks off Frapkin may soon find their way into one of his novels, their fictional analogues suffering some horrible fate.

Frapkin has more of an uphill battle with his publishers, though, as they refuse to pay him for his manuscripts, let alone any royalties he's due. The Last Buffoon ends with Frapkin threatening the life of one publisher, only to have another fold beneath him as he's turning in a brutal cop manuscript (clearly based on the characters Ryker and Super Cop Joe Blaze, both series which Levinson contributed to). But no matter, as there's always the pretty Japanese girl across the street to spy on...

Finally, the novel offers a great view of late 1970s New York City, a long-gone sleazepit of 42nd Street porno theaters and rampant crime. Again, this book's highly recommended for connoisseurs of trash fiction and men's adventure novels, particularly the more lurid 1970s incarnation of the genre. It's a lot of fun, moves at a snappy pace, and it's well written to boot. In a way The Last Buffoon reminds me of William Kotzwinkle's The Fan Man in that both novels are about eternal optimists who are even more crazy than the crazy characters they meet. But whereas The Fan Man attained a sort of cult fame, The Last Buffoon went unnoticed, and that's a shame.

I'll be reviewing a lot more of Levinson's work here in future, from his contribution to the Mace series (another one spoofed in The Last Buffoon), to his longrunning work on the crazy Butler series, to the other nongenre novels he published under the Jordan psuedonym. I also intend to track down copies of his Rat Bastards books (he wrote all of them under the name John Mackie, but they're all now available as ebooks under Levinson's own name) as well as his Sergeant series (published under the psuedonym Gordon Davis), which I haven't read since I was a kid. You can consider me a fan of his work.

Since re-reading The Last Buffoon, I've been lucky enough to get in touch with Leonard Levinson himself. He's still writing, and he was kind enough to give me some background information on many of his novels, including the fact that The Last Buffoon was twice optioned for the movies, though unfortunately nothing came of it. Throughout our conversation he expressed amazement that he has readers out there, particularly for some of the series novels he wrote. (He was shocked that the Butler novels for example go for such high dollars on the used-book market.) He's also written a piece on his life as a writer, complete with a list of the 80-some books he's published under various psuedonyms, which will appear in an upcoming issue of Justin Marriott's Paperback Fanatic.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Super Death Merchant #1: Apocalypse

Super Death Merchant #1: Apocalypse, by Joseph Rosenberger
April, 1987 Dell Books

I'm jumping all over the place in the Death Merchant series. After reading an early volume and then one from the middle of the run, I figured I'd see how our psychotic friend Richard "Death Merchant" Camellion ended up at the end of the series. Apocalypse, the one and only "Super Death Merchant," is the penultimate volume of the Death Merchant series, which, including this 400-page monstrosity, amounts to a total of 71 books...all of them written by Joseph Rosenberger; you have to respect the guy just a little for accomplishing such a feat.

Believe it or not, Apocalypse actually lives up to its title. This book has all the makings of a finale for the series, ending with hundreds of thousands dead in the Middle East and nuclear war declared between the US and USSR; but it actually takes place before Death Merchant #71: The Greenland Mystery (which apparently brushes aside the whole nuclear war ramifications of this volume). Actually it appears to me that Rosenberger was attempting a retcon of his character, as for the majority of the book, Apocalypse bears little resemblance to the earlier Death Merchant novels I've read.

For one, Camellion isn't the master of disguise he once was. Also, no mention of his reading "auras" and whatnot, and the Cosmic Lord of Death is given only minor mention. The first third of the novel comes off more like a Robert Ludlum spy story, with Camellion arriving in Greece and meeting with a variety of contacts.

The Soviets have kidnapped a Greek scientist who has supposedly cracked the mystery behind one of Tesla's many inventions -- namely, the control of the world's weather patterns. Surrounded by Spetsnaz commandos and KGB agents on one of the countless islands outside the Greece mainland, the scientist works against his will developing this ultimate weapon. Of course the Russians plan to use it against the US, without any concern over resultant damage to the rest of the world.

The first few hundred pages of Apocalypse are a slow-going affair. Rosenberger either recently visited Greece or consulted a mountain of travel brochures, as we get unending detail about Greece, its people, and their customs. Also endless meetings of various secret agents with lots of acronyms thrown around. The most shocking indication that Apocalypse is a "different" sort of Death Merchant is that there's no action scene until page 120! Even more shocking, there's an actual, bona fide sex scene before the action scene...!

The scene is certainly explicit, at least as far as Rosenberger is concerned, complete with graphic detail and dialog from the lady in question ("Do it! Do it! Do it to me!"). I couldn't believe it. Perhaps Rosenberger's new publisher Dell requested that he sex up the proceedings? Who knows. Anyway, the lady is Melina, a Greek agent who, moments after meeting Camellion, demands that they go to bed together. Weird and gratuitous stuff for sure. Rosenberger has a habit of using his books as forums for his own political and personal views, but in Apocalypse he even dispenses his own little nuggets of wisdom about women. For example:

The Death Merchant had also shared enough beds with the opposite sex to know that there were three kinds of women. There were those who appeared as cold as a dead fish but became wildcats in bed. Other women looked and acted sexy but were as frigid as a three-thousand-year-old statue. And the last category, were those women who exuded sex and, later in bed, proved it by having orgasms almost as fast as slugs can spit from the muzzle of a MAC-Ingram submachine gun!

There aren't too many authors who could (or would) compare a female orgasm to a machine gun.

As mentioned, the action doesn't even start until over a hundred pages in. Camellion is jumped by a group of Spetsnaz agents, and here the Rosenberger of yore returns. Every bullet's path is documented, every moment of the fight scene is detailed. He also indulges his bizarre penchant of naming each and every minor character Camellion kills.

From there the novel begins to resemble a regular Death Merchant novel; Camellion and his comrades engage in several more battles, in particular a very well done sequence where they are attacked in a safe house in the woods. This scene becomes grisly and darkly humorous when Camellion appropriates an armored truck after blasting its occupants to hell; he and his fellow fighters have to sit in the blood and on the destroyed bodies as they make their escape.

Apocalypse is 400 pages, and that's around 200 pages too long. After a brief tenure in London, Camellion sneaks into the USSR, this time posing as a scientist, complete with yet another female associate accompanying him. Remarkably, this involves another sex scene, though not as explicit as the one before.

The material here is pretty much a carbon copy of the material in Greece, with Camellion meeting inside agents; once again Camellion and his comrades are surprise-attacked in a safe house and must blast their way out. But Rosenberger delivers another good escape sequence, with Camellion commandeering a Russian plane and taking off. His certainty that Soviet red tape will prevent a hasty pursuit is proven correct; more opportunity for Rosenberger to rant against the idiocy of the "pig farmers."

As has been the case in the previous Death Merchants I've read, Apocalypse ends with Camellion and a team of commandos launching an assault against the enemy's fortress. This sequence, again well-done and gory, comes off like military fiction, with Camellion the member of a large group of British commandos and US Delta Force. Meanwhile the Russians have fired off the weather control device, which results in a hundred thousand dead in Turkey and more in Syria. After the lengthy battle sequence, Camellion frees the scientist, smashes the weather device, and escapes on a nuclear sub.

Here the novel races to its conclusion as Rosenberger synopsizes ensuing events. The world is of course outraged over Russia's actions. The USSR meanwhile does not comment. After an endless scene in which President Reagan renounces the Soviets on TV, complete with his showing documentation to prove their guilt, Camellion learns that nuclear war has been declared. Given that he's on a nuclear sub, he won't be headed to London for r'n'r, after all. Instead, the sub has been given battle orders.

Apocalypse ends with Camellion happy that the world is about to engage in nuclear war. He realizes he will finally see his dream come true: the USSR blasted into a radioactive wasteland. What a strange outlook for the hero of an action series. Or, for that matter, the author of an action series.

But as mentioned, this plot development was ignored in the 71st and final volume of Death Merchant -- consulting my copy of Greenland Mystery, which I'll read eventually, I see that the events of Apocalypse are relegated to a tiny footnote on page 152, which makes no mention of the declared nuclear war. Either Rosenberger changed his mind, or Dell didn't feel like turning the series into a post-nuke pulp...or, more likely, they just wanted to cancel it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Penetrator #12: Bloody Boston

The Penetrator #12: Bloody Boston, by Lionel Derrick
January, 1976 Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham delivers another rough and wild volume of the The Penetrator that's light on plot but heavy on sadism and gore. Once again Cunningham's version of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin is more vicious than the villains he fights, and the tale -- about a former college pal of Hardin's who has been replaced by a mob lookalike -- is just a convenient framework for Cunningham to depict countless scenes of Hardin brutally torturing various Mafia henchmen before killing them in novel ways. In other words, the book's pretty great.

The setting this time out is Boston, not that the reader gets much of a feel for the place. Instead, the focus is on carnage; Bloody Boston opens with a horrific scene in which Mark Hardin, our friggin' hero, tortures and mutilates a mob goon for intel. I mean, I started to feel bad for the goon. But Hardin shrugs it off, getting the information he needs; his schooltime chum, Tony Rossi, has called Mark for his help.

Tony Rossi is the son of a Boston Mafioso (I wonder if he's any relation to Bruno Rossi??) but really isn't involved with the family. Instead, Tony's been in the Amazon for the past few years; a researcher, he was kidnapped by a local tribe and held hostage. Escaping to the US, Tony found that a stand-in was posing as "Tony Rossi," and his wife and son were held captive in a mob stronghold. His father, ailing and near death, has disappeared.

Why exactly Tony calls Hardin is never made clear; Tony has no idea that Hardin is the Penetrator. Like I said, it's all immaterial, really. Hardin's going to torture and butcher a few people, that's all there is to it. In one of Chet Cunningham's patented WTF? scenes, Hardin answers a knock at their hotel door only to find a beautiful gal standing out there, one who asks if he is Mark Hardin, then produces a revolver and takes a shot at him. Saved of course by his spry reflexes, Hardin disarms the lady, only to discover it's Tony's sister Angie. Having received a panicked call from Tony, Angie came here to Boston, bought a gun, and, despite her panicking, apparently was able to remember not only Hardin's name but also the name of their hotel -- all while forgetting that Tony said that Hardin was helping him. Pretty dumb.

Anyway Angie's presence sets the stage for lots of sexual bantering between her and Hardin. The three work together with Hardin of course doing the dirty work himself. There are some fun sequences in here, like when Hardin infiltrates the Rossi mansion and poses as a loudmouthed Mafioso. There's another fun scene where he portrays a short-tempered repairman; this scene culminates in something out of a 1930s cliffhanger, with Hardin and Tony stuck in a locked cell that slowly fills with poison gas, all while a voice on a speaker tells them they're about to die.

I lost track of the number of mobsters Hardin wastes. Cunningham must've been in one nasty mood, because these poor Boston mobsters suffer like hell. There's a particularly grisly scene where Hardin sneaks on a mob-rented fishing boat; Hardin takes out the crew and mauls the mobster and tosses him into the ocean, putting a massive hook into the guy and pulling him along behind the boat. After the mobster finally spews the desired info, Hardin thanks him kindly and then shoots him in the face.

Just to give a taste of what I'm talking about, check out this scene, where Hardin has just knocked out a guard in a stairwell with his poison dart gun. Hardin, not sure if the man was Mafia or not, only hit him with a knockout dose. After confirming that the man is indeed Mafia, Hardin...well, just read for yourself:

Mark tensed his right hand and slammed the side of it hard against the underside of the hoodlum's nose. The Penetrator felt the small bones in back of the nose crush, knew that deadly splinters of bone and cartilage were being driven backwards, slanting through pulpy areas and directly into the Mafioso's brain. The body trembled; then a strong gush of air flowed from the man's mouth and at the same time Mark smelled the stench of feces as the involuntary muscles quite working. That was one hoodlum who had shit his pants for the last time.

That paragraph could've come out of Blood Bath. The only difference between the Penetrator and the Sharpshooter or the Marksman is that Hardin occasionally questions the rightness of his brutal actions. But of course he always convinces himself that he is just. Cunningham even has Hardin's pal Tony gradually become concerned about Hardin; there are a few scenes here where Tony will just gape at Hardin after he's performed the latest bit of sadism.

However this is merely Cunningham setting us up. Indeed he is so focused on sequences of graphic violence that he loses the main plot of the book. I spent the entire novel waiting to see Tony go head-to-head with the stand-in who'd replaced him, but we never even get to see the guy. Instead Cunningham has Hardin and Tony capture the Mafioso behind the plot, and Tony goes full-on insane on the bastard, giving the guy a stomping that would make even Gannon puke. I'm talking total demolition, complete with the mobster's eyeballs popping out and everything!

Yeah, Bloody Boston is certainly something else. Manor Books and the aforementioned Sharpshooter and Marksman series get all the credit for their graphically-violent sleaze level, but Chet Cunningham's Penetrator is right down there in the gore with them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Executioner #2: Death Squad

The Executioner #2: Death Squad, by Don Pendleton
September, 1969 Pinnacle Books

Picking up not long after the events in #1: War Against the Mafia, Death Squad finds Mack "Executioner" Bolan heading to the West Coast after blitzing the Mafia in Massachusetts. The mob's put a price on Bolan's head, so he's on the run, in hiding. He's even gone so far as to dye his hair blonde. On top of that his events in the previous volume have already made him somewhat legendary.

Hooking up with George Zitka, an old pal from 'Nam, Bolan heeds Zitka's advice and realizes that it might be a smart idea to put together a team to take on the Mafia. After all, Bolan's just one man and the mob is legion. The two men go about the country putting together a "death squad" comprised of former 'Nam hardassess, all of whom worked with Bolan during the war. In total there are nine of them, with Bolan making the squad an even ten, and Pendleton shows the mastery of his economical writing here, bringing to life each and every member of the squad with only a paragraph or two of introduction.

But that is the problem with Death Squad. There are just too many characters here. Bolan suffers as a result; there are only three or so scenes from his perspective. Pendleton spends the 180 pages hopscotching among the perspectives of his unwieldy cast of characters; he even muddies the water further by introducing yet more characters, LAPD cops tasked with bringing Bolan in. One of these cops is a young hotshot named Carl Lyons, fated to one day become a member of Able Team. (So too are Gadgets Schwartz and Pol Blancanales, signed up here as members of Bolan's death squad; the three characters do not share a scene in the novel.)

The brutal, taut feel of War Against the Mafia is lost as a result of the swarm of characters. Death Squad starts off pretty great, though, with Bolan showing up at Zitka's place just in time to blow away a pair of mob goons who happen to be staking the place out, all while a "mod party" rages at the apartment's swimming pool. It continues on in an accelerated, well-done pace as the members of the death squad are assembled and devote themselves to Bolan's cause. There's even a touching moment -- again delivered without the maudlin, sappy flair that would be mandatory today -- where the men realize that Bolan's reasons for this crusade are personal, not due to money, and so each of them put a share of their pay into "the kitty." (Ie the savings stash to continue the war.)

The squad sets its sights on two LA-based mobsters. The funny part is, neither of them are shown as being truly "bad." The first makes his money by hiring unknown rock bands for little pay and releasing their cover versions of famous songs. (The bastard!!) The second guy...well to tell the truth, I couldn't even tell what he did, though I think it was briefly mentioned at one point that he had his hand in drug dealing and prostitution. But regardless Bolan's teams unleash their 'Nam-trained fury on these poor saps.

The action scenes also suffer this time out. Pendleton writes the novel as if it's a pice of military fiction. Rather than the close-quarters, personal nature of War Against the Mafia, Death Squad is comprised of sort of analytically-related snatches of combat narrative. What I'm trying to say is, the personal feel is lost. Instead, Bolan and his team relay military jargon to one another via walkie-talkie and a lot of the action is rendered via summary or flashback. I'm certain this was Pendleton's intention -- indeed, the entire thrust of the novel is a group of 'Nam soldiers deploying military tactics on the mob -- but for me it just took away from the nature of the series. Perhaps it would've worked better if the novel was longer.

Pendleton must've felt the same way, though, as he even has Bolan questioning his decision to form a squad, late in the novel. But it's a moot point: in an unintentionally funny denoument, the squad pretty much bites the dust. I mean, these guys couldn't even make it through one novel. What makes it even more ironic is the nature of the villains this time out; the climax, while entertaining, still just features a few Mafia goons in a fortress-like building. It's the sort of thing The Sharpshooter could take care of in his sleep.

The mythology of the series is still being worked out here. Bolan has yet to acquire the accoutrements that became standards later on: no Automag, no blacksuit, no War Wagon. But then, Bolan really isn't that strong of a character in Death Squad, lost amid the shuffle of too many competing characters, many of whom (like Juan "Flower Child" Andromede) are more colorful than Bolan himself. Thankfully Bolan returned to his lone wolf status in the next volume.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Baroness #6: Sonic Slave

The Baroness #6: Sonic Slave, by Paul Kenyon
November, 1974 Pocket Books

The previous volume of the Baroness series left me cold; I found the Baroness herself pretty annoying, getting herself and her teammates in mortal danger due to nothing more than her ego and recklessness. Also the spy-fy aspect of the series was beginning to wear thin, with fancy gadgets described ad naseum -- not to mention the pages-filling explicit sex scenes, which by this point were too much of a good thing. So what a relief it is that Sonic Slave (now there's a name for an '80s metal band) is an improvement in every way over Operation Doomsday.

The focus this time out is moreso on plot and scene-setting. In fact there's hardly any action until the final third, and I was shocked to discover that the Baroness only has sex twice in the novel, first in the opening pages with a millionaire horse-breeder, and toward the end with the leader of the rebel faction of a fictional Middle Eastern country. I've noticed this is yet another pattern of the series; the Baroness will have sex early on in her "regular" life as Penelope St. John-Orsini, and again later on, while on a mission, in her guise as the Baroness. And I'm also happy to note that for once the Baroness doesn't pull any stupid moves while on this mission -- in the past she's always gone off on her own for some arrogant reason, only to be caught. She of course works solo at times in Sonic Slave, but it's for necessary reasons.

After outbidding a group of wealthy Japanese (at an exorbitant price) for a horse, the Baroness frolicks in the hay with the aformentioned millionaire. This is the first of two scenes in which the Baroness has sex while horses are around, her sexual prowess serving to shall we say "titillate" the beasts in both instances. Honestly, I'm not sure what Paul Kenyon (aka Donald Moffitt) was going for with this. But, as has happened in every previous volume of the series, as soon as she's finished having sex the Baroness gets a call from her handler, Coin, and races off for her next mission. I've said it before, the Baroness series is more repetitive than most men's adventure series, and I wonder how a different "Paul Kenyon" might've shaken things up.

The threat this time is the power-crazed Emir of a small patch of sand in the Middle East. The Emir likes to torture his subjects, hacking off their bodyparts and feeding them to his birds. The bigger threat however is Octave Le Sourd, a French alchemist of sound who has developed a sort of sonic attack method which renders flesh into jelly. The Emir has been using the sound cannons on surrounding villages, decimating people in horrendous ways. Posing as her usual glamorous, world-traveling self, the Baroness "visits" the Emir with the cover story of looking to breed with some of his fine horse stock -- the opening bit of the Baroness outbidding the Japanese (which has made world news) being used to good purpose here.

Kenyon brings to life the exotic world of the Emir's palace, with the Baroness and only two of her teammates living in luxuriously-appointed suites while the rest of her team pose as archeologists, digging in the desert across the border. For once the team actually comes off like a team. The Baroness finds herself drawn to the strange Le Sourd, who provides her with a variety of tours. She also successfully fends off the Emir, who has set his depraved sights on her.

There are some brutal sequences in Sonic Slave. In particular a scene midway through where the Baroness goes on a hunting trip with the Emir and his Arab colleagues; the game they hunt is the downtrodden prisoners from the Emir's jails. Kenyon shows the Baroness's noble spirit when, able to get away from her Emir-appointed watchdogs during the hunt, she saves one of the prisoners (who of course turns out to be a good looking guy -- indeed the rebel leader mentioned above), killing a group of Arabs with her bare hands.

As expected the Baroness is uncovered, but this time out it goes down in a novel way. Finding out that her cover's been blown, she escapes into the palace wearing a wisp of a nightgown made of spy-fy fiber technology. Long story short, it culminates in the Baroness hanging nude from the palace ceiling and sneaking into the Emir's harem of equally-nude women. But despite it all she's still caught, ending up in a contraption straight out of Goldfinger where she's strapped onto a torture device outfitted with a sonic beam that threatens her womanhood.

Kenyon's writing is a step or two above the men's adventure norm, with great scene-setting and description. He also excels in the action scenes; the finale, where all hell breaks loose as the Baroness and her team take on the Emir's men in the desert, is very well done. But again it's in the more intimate, close-quarter sections where Kenyon shines, with the Baroness taking on attackers by herself, usually bare-handed.

Hector Garrido's covers are usually excellent, but I find this one a bit chaotic. It's interesting though that he always has the Baroness wearing the same skintight black costume, when she wears no such costume in the series itself. In fact, she's usually wearing nothing at all -- no wonder Harold Robbins wanted to buy the film rights to the series.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Death Merchant #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill

Death Merchant #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill, by Joseph Rosenberger
November, 1979 Pinnacle Books

Death Merchant #2: Operation Overkill is the earliest volume of the series I currently have; this 36th volume is the latest. Finding that earlier volume to lack the insanity the Death Merchant series is known for, I decided to jump ahead and check out a later volume. Usually I try to read these series in order, but ultimately it makes little difference, as each of them (with a few exceptions) are usually intended to be read as stand-alone adventures.

As expected, The Cosmic Reality Kill shows a Joseph Rosenberger more comfortable with his violent creation; little wonder, given that this volume was published seven years after Operation Overkill. That earlier volume showed little of the crazed shenanigans Rosenberger is known for, coming off like just another entry in Pinnacle's endless line of men's adventure books. But here we have the metaphysical/cosmic/nutjob overtones that fans of Rosenberger demand. But what's strange is, despite all of this...Rosenberger's writing here is actually better than in that previous volume. I figured as the years progressed he'd start churning out action-heavy junk like Mace, but instead he only places a few action scenes in this novel, and overall his writing is stronger.

I knew I was in for a good time when I saw the back-cover blurb: "Gnostics and Guns." The first page of the book was also promising, where Rosenberger thanks the publishers of the Principia Discordia for allowing him to quote snatches of the text. As a longtime fan of Shea and Wilson's Illuminatus!, I was familiar with the Principia and couldn't believe I was seeing it mentioned in a men's adventure written by a (supposedly) right wing-nutjob of an author, at that. I'm sort of an armchair researcher of comparitive religion, so The Cosmic Reality Kill appealed to me in every way: in it Richard "Death Merchant" Camellion tasks himself with killing Reverend Hannibal Frimm, "His Oneness and Onlyness," head of the Cosmic Reality Church, insane leader of a brainwashed legion of followers who spread across the nation.

Tapping right into the then-current Jim Jones scandal, the novel operates on America's sudden fear of religious cults. Frimm has amassed so many followers that he has camps spread across the US; he runs the Church from his base in Colorado Springs. His followers come from all walks of life and the Church's religion is an amalgam of Jim Jones's warped Christianity and the basic tenets of Scientology. But as usual with these sorts of novels, Rosenberger gives no reason why anyone would so willingly join the Church -- they must live in shacks, give away all their possessions, sex is basically forbidden (therefore, none of the sex-worship of, say, Shamballah, and more's the pity), and life is relegated to work on the land and worship. But then, people join such religions in the real world every day, so I guess Rosenberger doesn't need to give a reason, after all.

Frimm has his own network of security, headed by Brother Sesson, who considers himself the Himmler to Frimm's Hitler. Sesson's men are kids, really, untrained youths barely out of their teens who roam the grounds with machine guns, enforcing order. However the guns have concerned the government, who have infiltrated a few undercover agents. These agents have all ended up missing (melted away in Frimm's "Disintigrating Chambers").

When Camellion finds out that one of his old friends, a CIA-trained cult victim deprogrammer, has also gone missing while investigating the Church, he determines to kill Frimm and wipe out his organization. He's so pissed that he's going to do it on his own; this isn't a mission the CIA has hired him for, though the Agency is kind enough to loan an "off duty" agent to help him out. In a chilling moment, the Death Merchant determines to not only kill Frimm but all of his followers. Rosenberger, obviously realizing this would mean Camellion would become a mass-murderer, thankfully brushes this over as the novel continues.

The novel opens with Camellion scouting out a Church camp (in Fort Worth, Texas!). For some bizarre, unstated reason he wears a latex alien mask. After being discovered, Camellion blows away several "Frimmies," men and women alike. From there the novel settles into the same pace as Operation Overkill, with an action scene scattered here and there, but mostly Camellion doing some research and biding his time until the inevitable final assault on Frimm's headquarters. After an endless car chase outside Colorado Springs, Camellion hooks up with his CIA contact, Linders; together with Linders's girlfriend Janet they travel around in an RV. Throughout the novel Camellion's disguised as an old man, with Linders posing as his son and Janet as his daughter-in-law.

As Rosenberger is apparently known for, The Cosmic Reality Kill is filled with the author's own views, spouted from the mouths of his characters. Camellion hates religion and informs Linders and Janet on all of its negative aspects. Linders for his part is the guy who mentions the Principia Discordia, though oddly Rosenberger has it that Linders is making it up as he goes along -- a spoof of religion that has Janet in particular laughing until she cries, though I assumed she must've just been high. Speaking of Janet, Camellion spends the majority of the novel admiring her "female curves" as they travel along in the motor home -- that is, when he isn't telling her to fry him up a steak. (Seriously!)

The climax is well-rendered and gory. Realizing he's been used by the CIA to get a free mission out of him, Camellion turns the tables and has Linders call in a team of Black Berets for the final assault, all of it on the Agency's bill. They go in with tons of gear, helicopters that blast holographic images, and a few batches of LSD with which to spike the camp's water supply.

Camellion -- still dressed as an old man -- unleashes a host of weaponry here, including the Automag favored by the Executioner. But, again as in Operation Overkill, Frimm's soldiers come off as little competition for Camellion and the team of Black Berets. As mentioned, they're really just kids, so there's a grim, unsettling tone to the finale, as Camellion and team take special relish in blowing away Frimmie after Frimmie, Rosenberger always mentioning each of them by name, as well as their age, as if rubbing it in.

As for Camellion the man, Rosenberger still only yields few details, keeping the character a cipher. We learn that he likes steaks, for one. Also, he eats sardines with banana jello...! Camellion makes a few mentions of "The Cosmic Lord of Death," whom he apparently serves; it's his self-vowed duty to kill those who need to be killed in order to balance the cosmic scheme. He can see "auras;" he knows that he will survive this mission because he saw a "light green aura" when looking in the mirror. Given all of this, it would appear that the series could've just as easily been titled Death Messiah, with Camellion the fleshly incarnation of the Cosmic Lord of Death. (Or, more likely, he's just fucking nuts.)

Anyway, what's surprising me most is how much I'm enjoying this series. Even more surprising is that Rosenberger's writing isn't that bad at all, despite his bad rep. I guess like any other series author churning out a whopping four novels a year, the man had his good days and his bad days. The Comsic Reality Kill I'd say is mostly "good," only marred by a needless subplot in which a sheriff tries to track down Camellion. Also, Rosenberger doesn't shirk on his writing -- this novel features some seriously small print; if printed at a larger size the book would easily be twice as long or so. Obviously Rosenberger was putting everything he had into this series, which makes it even harder to believe that he did so for 71 volumes!