Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Specialist #4: The Psycho Soldiers

The Specialist #4: The Psycho Soldiers, by John Cutter
August, 1984 Signet Books

With this volume of The Specialist, author John Shirley comes into his own as "John Cutter," turning out what is easily the best installment of the series yet. While the three previous volumes were good, they were still padded a bit too much, with Shirley obviously having a hard time finding his footing in the world of men's adventure fiction. Here though he fires on all cylinders from the first page to the last, delivering a taut, action-filled novel that also manages to poke fun at not only the genre but the protagonist himself.

The novel is titled The Psycho Soldiers, but the psychos here aren't soldiers, which leads me to believe that Shirley titled his manuscript "The Psycho Killers," which is how he refers to them throughout. Swenson is the head psycho, so violently insane that we're told that even Charles Manson looks up to the guy. Then there's Esmerelda, a raven-haired beauty who claims to have psychic abilities. Two others complete the bill, minor characters in the long run: Ortega, who gets off on murder, and another sick bastard whose name I've forgotten.

For some reason I never understood, a KGB cell team breaks these nutcases out of their mental institutions in the opening of the novel. They kidnap an industrialist and his daughter after taking out the rest of his family in horrific ways -- full-on Manson family stuff here, with Shirley piling on the graphic description.

Meanwhile our hero Jack "The Specialist" Sullivan, who is slowly getting back into the mercenary game after the death of his contact/best friend Malta in the previous volume, is contacted by Knickian, a DEA agent who also briefly worked with Sullivan in the past. Knickian has discovered a turncoat within the agency, one who has funded the KGB cell and the breakout of the four psychos. After meeting with the mother of the kidnapped industrialist, Sullivan is raring to find Swenson and his comrades and kill them real good.

Sullivan now has become a full-fledged Imitation Executioner, driving around in his own "warwagon," a customized bullet-proof van that can fire rockets! Shirley also pokes fun at our hero's stern patriotism, at his single-minded obsession with justice and revenge. Shirley also manages to sneak in some of his horror roots, adding a sort of supernatural thrust to Sullivan; he can now "sense" who is good and who is bad -- and the "bad," of course, deserve to be killed. Also, when angry Sullivan becomes a sort of Hulk, his rage powering him to superhuman strength. The cover proclaims him "the toughest action hero of them all," and Shirley takes that to heart; when he's pissed, which is often, Sullivan is basically unstoppable.

Shirley works up the plot a bit, with some mystery over why the nutcases were sprung from their prisons, but the novel eventually becomes more of a chase sort of thing. After Sullivan frees the captured industrialist and his daughter, Swenson and his pyshcos manage to escape, and Sullivan gives chase. This proves to be the plot for the rest of the novel, Sullivan always one step behind Swenson, who cuts a swathe of death and misery through the rural areas of New York state. Along the way Sullivan manages to pick up a female companion, a young soldier named Beth Pepper who is a sergeant in the WAC (ie, "Sergeant Pepper"); she is of course gorgeous, and she's got a crush on Sullivan.

In yet more in-jokery, Shirley reveals that Sullivan is so legendary that exposes are run on him in Soldier of Fortune magazine. (Sullivan's response? "Those bastards! I'll have to cancel my subscription!") Beth happens to have her own copy with her -- she meets Sullivan after taking a few shots at his bullet-proof van, mistakenly thinking he was part of the group who kidnapped the industrialist and murdered his family -- and soon enough she seduces Sullivan. There follows a Shirley-patented sex scene with the obligatory mention of Sullivan's "eight-inches" and even, believe it or not, features the line from Beth: "Will you take me through the back door?" Yeah, you wouldn't read anything like that in a Gold Eagle-era Executioner novel!

But then, Shirley's The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle books should have been. Rather than playing everything straight and serious like the majority of those Gold Eagle ghostwriters did, Shirley subtly spoofs the genre and its cliches while still delivering a fun thrill-ride. He also delivers on the exploitation angle hinted at in previous volumes, with graphically-depicted carnage that follows in Swenson's wake, and also Sullivan again pulling off sadistic feats that would make Philip Magellan or Johnny Rock envious, my favorite being when Sullivan picks up one poor bastard and hurls him into a trash compactor.

The Psycho Soldiers is proof enough why Sylvester Stallone must have been a fan of the series. The only question is why he made a film merely "inspired" by Shirley's series and didn't just make a straight-up adaptation of it. This particular volume would have made for one hell of an action film. The other question is why Shirley has disowned this series. I can see why he may be a bit hesistant to acknowledge his first few entries, but The Psycho Soldiers is nothing any action writer should be ashamed of.


Tim Mayer said...

I think Shirley is more than a little embarrassed he wrote action novels. Hey, we all have bills to pay.
DO check out the BLOOD AND TACOS anthology.

francisco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
francisco said...

what happens with Esmerelda, Esmeralda?, in the end?

Joe Kenney said...

Francisco -- if you really want to know...all others who plan to read the novel, stop reading. Anyway, Esmeralda is of course killed by Sullivan at the end of the novel, during the final shoot-out. However before she is killed, Esmeralda manages to shoot and kill Beth Pepper; this is what really turns Sullivan into a raging death machine at the end of the book.