Thursday, April 26, 2012

Soldier For Hire #8: Jakarta Coup

Soldier For Hire #8: Jakarta Coup, by Mark K. Roberts
No month stated, 1983 Zebra Books

I learned about this series through Michael Newton's 1989 book How To Write Action-Adventure Novels. Newton ranted and raved about this particular installment of the series throughout that book, going on about the author's not-very-veiled political commentary, the "repulsive" female villain and her weird sexual quirks, and on and on, even mentioning a scene where blustering hero J.C. Stonewall (!) cursed at the sea for nearly drowning him, thus almost robbing him of the chance to "continue killing commies." (In point of fact, I've discovered this scene doesn't actually occur in Jakarta Coup; it's in the fifth volume of the series, Libyan Warlord.)

Anyway, Newton's comments had me raring to read this book, which by all accounts sounded like full-on parody. And the book really was everything I wanted it to be -- just an over the top explosion of Right Wing sermonizing and terrorist killing, with a lot of goofy and explicit sex thrown in. The book is more Team America than Team America, and reading it you'd never guess that this is the same Mark Roberts who wrote the even-numbered volumes of The Penetrator. The tone, style, and antics of the protagonist are wholly different than anything I've read from Roberts in that earlier series, so the question is, was he just hamstrung by Pinnacle Books, or did Zebra Books ask him to go over the top with Soldier For Hire?

The series was actually begun by a different author, Robert Skimin, who wrote the first four volumes. Mark Roberts took over the series with the fifth volume, writing it all the way through to this last installment. The "hero" of the series is the aforementioned J.C. Stonewall, white-haired Vietnam vet who basically lives to kill Communists. Seriously, the man has such a red-hot burning hatred for them that even Richard Camellion would be taken aback. Stonewall's wife or something was killed by them, and now every Communist Stonewall kills is seen as a retribution for her murder. But then, Stonewall is very liberal in his definition of what a Communist is -- terrorists, criminals, Democrats; they're all commies, and they all deserve to die.

Reading Newton's scathing (but curiosity-generating) comments about this book had me certain that it had to be a parody. Understand then my shock when Mike Madonna, owner of The Fabulous Mrs. Poopenplatz blog, told me that it was his understanding that Roberts did not intend the Soldier For Hire books as a parody! Mike knew Roberts pretty well and has shared with me a lot of great information about him and other action-series authors he has known over the years (including the interesting tidbit that Dan Schmidt, whom Mike also knew, was pals with Joseph Rosenberger!). Anyway, Mike has told me that, though Roberts had a sense of humor, he was quite serious in his political views, and was not using the Soldier For Hire books as a way to spoof the Right Wing mindset or anything else.

But reading Jakarta Coup, quote Frank on Everybody Loves Raymond: "Jeez oh lou!" If you sat down and tried to come up with a list of things to spoof in an action novel, you still couldn't top this novel. Stonewall, our "hero," is a chauvinistic blowhard who hates everyone, picks up ladies and casts them aside, lives to kill commies and terrorists, and takes every opportunity to rant and rave against his arch-enemy Senator Ned Flannery, a far-left Democract who is in no way similar to Senator Ted Kennedy, at all.

Mike Madonna has also told me that Kennedy's people actually found about about the blatant Kennedy-bashing in the Roberts installments of this series, and I guess word made its way to Roberts, who was told to ease up, but he didn't -- though he doesn't appear in Jakarta Coup, Flannery's name is invoked by not only the Liberal politicians but even by the terrorists, both of whom admire the guy. Hell, the Liberals even openly side with the terrorists, complaining about "the savage" currently in the White House -- ie Ronald Reagan, whom the good-guy Right Wingers lovingly refer to as "Good ol' Ronnie!"

The plot is really just a framework for the Kennedy-bashing and the frequent sex scenes, which I will get to posthaste. Stonewall's m.o. is that he hires himself out to whoever needs him, and if he can use the job as a means to kill more commies, then so much the better. Stonewall is hired by the Indonesian government to train an anti-terrorist taskforce; a Communist-backed terrorist force called KAM is causing dissent in Jakarta, and the government needs help in dealing with them. Stonewall has a team, apparently, but this time he only brings along two of them: Theo, a black soldier (and boy, are we reminded every time he appears that Theo is black), and Ed Cotter, a nonentity who I think only had about four lines in the entire book.

A goodly portion of the novel is given over to Stonewall training the Indonesian task force, and it all reads like some WWII novel. Indeed, much of Jakarta Coup is similar to a war novel; even the action scenes come off in that regard, in particular the finale, which finds Stonewall and his men making a beachhead assault, complete with mortars and tanks. But the pulpy stuff makes it all more than worth it. Also worth noting is that Roberts doesn't play up too much on the gore. In fact I believe the Penetrator books of his I've read are actually a bit more gory. But then, none of them I've read have been as laugh-out-loud funny as Jakarta Coup.

Special mention must be made of the villains. Leading the KAM faction is Pomo, an Indonesian rebel with dreams of conquest but who takes the opportunity to run from every fight. Most enjoyably though we have Margot Anstruther, an 18 year-old blonde Australian beauty who was raised by left-wing parents who sent Margot to a radical terrorist camp in the Middle East when she was 13. While there, we learn in a brief background, Margot discovered sex and "practically raped" the few-hundred men and boys in her camp. Now she gets off on combat, becoming sexually aroused while fighting and killling. It was this character whom Newton found so "repulsive" in his How-To book, but, as you could no doubt guess, her scenes were my favorite in the book -- I consider warped and evil female villains to be the very essence of pulp fiction.

As for the sex scenes...again, above and beyond anything else I've read by Roberts. Stonewall is described as a veritable mountain of muscle, and apparently irresistible to the lady folk. While in Singapore in the opening of the novel, Stonewall manages to pick up "the only white woman" in the city, and Roberts writes a graphic scene between the two (quoted below). Then, just a few pages later, Stonewall, now in Jakarta, picks up another lady, this one a cute Indonesian model named Lisa who joins our hero for an even more explicit scene -- one complete with "pearls of heaven," which Lucy inserts into various of Stonewall's orificies...that is, after she's given the man an apparently 30-minute blowjob...!

Anyway, I'm just gonna start quoting stuff, because the book sells itself.

Not-very-veiled Ted Kennedy-bashing:

"At least he won't be running for President," Theo observed.

"Don't fucking count on it," Stonewall snapped. "He said the same thing last time, then campaigned like mad for it. It was the same old shit four years before that. He's just angling to get the loyal party hacks to beg him to take the nomination."

"The Flannerys do seem to think they are the rightful pretenders to the throne of North America," Ed allowed.

"Yeah. King Ned the First," Stonewall shot back. "King of the sewer rats, if you ask me."

Jaw-dropping sex scenes with equally jaw-dropping dialog:

Audry did something at the side of her surong and it fell away, revealing her ripe, alabaster body. She came to him in a rush, fingers flying to undo his belt and open his trousers. She let them drop and pressed her naked flesh against the bulge that distorted the front of his undershorts. Her blonde-thatched mound, glistening with moist readiness, throbbed against the pulsing organ separated from her center of passion by a thin weave of white cotton cloth.

"You are the stuff of my dreams, J.C. Hurry, fill me with that enormous phallus before I lose my cookies right here."

The depraved female villain, complete with incorrect ammunition detail (AK-47s actually fire 7.62mm "slugs"):

They entered a wall-less, roofed-over drying shed and sprinted to the other side. Margot raised her AK-47 and sent a squirt of 5.56mm slugs at the legs of a soldier who stood with his back to them.

He uttered a short, harsh cry of pain and fell to the ground. With an effort the man rolled over toward his enemy. Grinning wildly, Margot raised the muzzle of her Soviet-made weapon and fired again, trashing his genitals. A gasp of passion, that sounded more like a sob, escaped from Margot's lips and, with her left hand, she began to grope her crotch. Pomo shook his head and turned away.

Political commentary, courtesy our learned protagonist, with additional not-very-veiled Ted Kennedy bashing:

"Bullshit. If it weren't for fuzzy-brained, pseudo-intellectuals like you, with your heads stuffed full of Liberal crap, terrorist slime like Pomo wouldn't last five minutes in anyone's country. Christ! I don't know why I'm wasting my fucking time with you. You're no better than that Leftist bastard from Iran who joined forces with the anti-gun pricks in California last year. You both do an excellent job of reflecting the philosophy of that bunny-bashing wimp who gave you your posts."

There are only two disappointments in Jakarta Coup. For one, Margot Anstruther talks Pomo into allowing her to seduce Stonewall, who has never met her. Margot's plan is to take Stonewall to a nearby hotel room, where Pomo's soldiers can come in and kill Stonewall while Margot is "frigging him." While Roberts sets up this scene, he has Pomo's men act too early, thus we never get the scene that would have undoubtedly been the most fun in the book. Secondly, Roberts intimates that the next volume would feature Stonewall in action in the US -- and possibly going up against Ned Flannery and his armed goons as well.

So far I only have one other volume of the Roberts-penned installments of the series: #5: Libyan Warlord, which was his first. I can only hope it will be as enjoyable (for all the wrong reasons) as Jakarta Coup.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Executioner #3: Battle Mask

The Executioner #3: Battle Mask, by Don Pendleton
April, 1970 Pinnacle Books

With this volume of the Executioner, the mythos of the character finally begins to evolve. Mack Bolan is back to being the lone wolf he was in the first volume, hitting the Mafia hard and without mercy. Reading Battle Mask, you also get an understanding why Don Pendleton, several years later, had so much bitterness toward Gold Eagle Books, who had purchased the rights to his character. For the "Mack Bolan" of those Gold Eagle novels bears little resemblance to Pendleton's original.

This was also one of the "old" Executioner novels I had as a kid in the '80s. I no longer have that particular copy, but I'm sure the one I had featured a logo emblazoned across the top which stated "Soon to be a major motion picture starring Burt Reynolds." This has always stuck with me, because shortly after buying that copy of Battle Mask I saw Burt Reynolds's craptastic 1986 film Malone in the theater, and throughout I kept saying to myself, "That guy ain't no Mack Bolan." I tried reading Battle Mask a few times back then, but I just didn't get it -- I wanted Mack to fly over to Beirut or something and start wasting terrorists, as in the Gold Eagle books.

Still on the West Coast after the disastrous finale of the previous volume, Bolan realizes that no matter where he goes, people will know who he is, thanks to media coverage. He figures his best gambit is to get some facial-reconstruction work done. To this end he visits an old 'Nam pal who happens to run a plastic surgery clinic in a small Californian town. Meanwhile the cops and the Mafia are closing in. Bolan's target from the previous book, Julian DiGeorge, Los Angeles mob bigwig, sends out his enforcers in an effort to close a trap on the Executioner.

Bolan displays his bad-assness by shrugging off any drugs after the painful surgery, and in fact is escorted out of the town posthaste by the Gary Cooper-esque sherriff, who don't want no trouble in this here town. Too bad, because the mobsters spring an ambush on the men as they're leaving. This entails an elaborate action sequence where Pendleton again displays his mastery of the craft. Whereas the later Gold Eagle books would get bogged down in narrative-halting gun porn, describing the origin and firepower capabilities of each firearm used, Pendleton instead just writes an action scene, and he does so very well.

But as proven in earlier volumes, Pendleton shows and tells. After this huge battle sequence we get a chapter recapping everything we just read! Anyway the mob's presence results in the destruction of the small town, but Bolan himself is able to escape, and no one knows he's gotten a new face. LA cop Carl Lyons, from the previous novel, is still on the case, trailing Bolan despite his growing respect for the man. Like Bolan, Lyons would become a vastly different character in the Gold Eagle books.

When we meet Bolan again he's already infiltrated into DiGeorge's estate, posing as a lone wolf mob enforcer. He's also busy putting the moves on DiGeorge's pretty daughter, and though it's intimated the two are friendly -- DiGeorge meets Bolan when his topless daughter is laying on Bolan beside the pool -- Pendleton doesn't elaborate on the details as he did in the first volume of the series. Using his own moxie as a sort of Mafia badge, Bolan's able to ingratiate himself into DiGeorge's army, eventually becoming so beloved to the man that DiGeorge considers nominating Bolan for full-on Mafia membership.

During this Bolan also works as an informant, calling Lyons with information; Lyons suspects this stranger calling him with intel is none other than Mack Bolan, who everyone now believes dead. Also introduced is Hal Brognola, a Federal agent who becomes Bolan's sort of boss in the Gold Eagle books. Ironically, Pendleton doesn't even describe Brognola, and to this day I have no idea what the character is supposed to look like; I don't think I've ever seen him described.

Lurid stuff develops in the character of Pena, DiGeorge's chief enforcer, who has been tasked with bringing back Bolan's head. Lying low after the small-town battle, Pena gets wind that Bolan might've gotten some facial surgery, and so captures Bolan's old plastic surgeon friend. He tortures the man to death in the first "turkey doctor" instance that would eventually become a staple of the series -- the name derived from mob "doctors" who get "turkeys" to talk. I know the name sounds goofy, and no wonder as it's a straight-up Pendleton invention.

Once again there are some great action scenes, in particular when Bolan discovers that Pena's out there and that he's got the "blueprint" for Bolan's new face. Bolan races against the clock to kill Pena before Pena can get the blueprint to DiGeorge, and thus ruin Bolan's cover. The finale sees a climatic battle in which Bolan turns DiGeorge's own soldiers against him, leading to utter chaos on the DiGeorge estate.

Pendleton delivers another taut narrative that moves at a steady clip; I think I read this book in about a day. I've discovered that Pendleton's novels are incredibly quick reads. And again I do admire how he never delves into the nauseating gun-porn of the Gold Eagle books: guys here just shoot "guns" and etc, meaning there are no sentences and sentences of firearms description. Hell, Pendleton proves himself a bit uncertain about guns -- toward the end of the book there's a scene where Bolan puts a silencer on his revolver. This is an impossibility!

But who cares, when a book is as enjoyable as this.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ninja Master #1: Vengeance Is His

Ninja Master #1: Vengeance Is His, by Wade Barker
November, 1981 Warner Books

In the 1980s we were ninja crazy, especially kids my age. Sho Kosugi films, American Ninja, even a TV show (in the craptastic form of Master Ninja, starring Lee Van Cleef!), we loved them all. I remember going to the mall and checking, every other month, for the latest issue of Ninja magazine -- which always had these kick-ass painted covers of some ninja about to waste an unsuspecting samurai or whatever, but the innards of the mag were given over to glossy color photos of dudes in ninja gis throwing each other around in the countryside.

Anyway, I think at the time I was aware of the Ninja Master series, but it was difficult to find. I think I also assumed it was based on the similarly-named Master Ninja TV show, but nothing could be further from the fact. Actually, the template of the series is similar to the show, in that it's about a ninja master traveling around the US and righting wrongs, but the protagonist and the way things go down are wildly different.

Our hero is Brett Wallace, who first appears in the novel with a different last name. He's home from studying philosophy and martial arts in Japan, and with him he's brought his gorgeous Japanese wife, who is pregnant. After a lavish party at his dad's mansion, Brett drives a drunk guest home, and returns to find his family slaughtered in gory fashion. It's eventually learned that a trio of bikers were behind it, high out of their minds and just looking for some fun. Brett tries to let the justice system do its job, but this being a men's adventure novel, Justice is portrayed as a two-dollar crack whore, useless and ineffective.

After a year of planning his attack and funneling his money into various accounts, as well as re-naming himself "Brett Wallace," Brett springs his trap on the bikers and kills 'em real good with some martial arts. After which he heads to Japan to take up this old master on an offer the man made to Brett years before: an offer to make Brett a ninja. Flash forward (literally) nine years later, and Brett is now a ninja badass, one of the "top five" ninjas in the world. This flash-forward is so goofy as to be hilarious, but to be honest the last thing I'd want to read is a long novel filled with ninja training techniques and etc.

Brett sets up a new life for himself in San Francisco, even scoring a new beautiful girl in his life: Rhea, a Japanese lady whose uncle was a ninja. In between frequent sexual escapades, Brett opens a SanFran restaurant and makes Rhea his chief cook, using the restaurant as a cover for his hidden wealth. Now he is free to do what he has returned to America for: to travel about and use his ninja skills to aid the weak!

But man, it's all so plodding and boring. This novel is filled to the brim with characters sitting around as they drink and talk about shit that has nothing to do with anything. Dialog about where they want to go eat dinner and what the place serves. It's obvious too that the author has no clear idea what a "ninja" is; reading Vengeance Is His, you'd get the idea that a ninja isn't much different from a karate master. Brett uses no weapons, no shadowy skills, and of course doesn't even wear a ninja gi.

There's a group of punks killing elderly residents of an inner-city borough in Los Angeles, and after hobknobbing with the residents Brett figures out who they are. Man, it takes a long time for this to happen. To get there you have to navigate through more chitchat, including an endless trip to a karate school run by some local elders. And of course more trips to various restaurants. Finally Brett closes in on the gang, but instead of the ninja massacre I wanted, with Brett killing hordes of the bastards with ninjutsu steel, he instead takes out the leaders one by one, the "action" scenes incredibly brief and hamfisted.

Reading this, you'd figure that the Ninja Master series would be dead in the water. And apparently it almost was. "Wade Barker" was a house name, one that eventually became associated solely with author Ric Meyers. But according to this post on, Meyers did not write Vengeance Is His or the seventh volume of the series, Skin Swindle. Meyers states in his post that the guy who did write Vengeance Is His also turned in a second volume, but Warner Books felt that it was "unpublishable." Hell, I think this one was unpublishable!

What's odd though is that parts of Vengeance Is His are well-written, but well-written in a style not beneficial to the men's adventure genre. What I'm saying is, the author was trying too hard to turn out a "regular" novel, not realizing the pulp nature of the genre. Also, this author name-drops more than any other men's adventure writer I've yet read: Brett listens to the jazz stylings of Keith Jarrett and David Sanborn, he drinks Absolut Vodka (a lot of it), the hooker who lives in the apartment beneath him wears Rolling Stone T-shirts, and on and on. There's even a veiled reference to then-popular Bo Derek ("the perfect ten herself").

The few action scenes, as mentioned, are brief. Brett usually uses some fast moves to take out his opponents, and in one cool sequence he wastes a dude with a pencil. But the book could've been so much better. There's a distinct lack of tension or drama, and a sort of pallid tone envelops it. There is though quite a bit of sex, which veers into the humorous purple-prosed territory. But anyway, the Ninja Master we meet here isn't all that tough, and would certainly get his ass handed to him by, say, Mondo.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Father Pig

Father Pig, by Burt Hirschfeld
May, 1973 Dell Books

This novel is very unlike any other I've yet read by Burt Hirschfeld. Here he tackles the generation gap, turning it into an actual war, with hippie kids plotting the deaths of their parents. I also get the feeling that Hirschfeld had a tough time writing Father Pig, as the novel seems to lack a certain something...for one, it's very short, and something about it just feels too rushed. Also, Hirschfeld states on the acknowledgement page: "Only the continuous encouragement, the editorial help, the faith of my wife, Terry, made it possible for me to write this book."

Hirschfeld makes little mystery of which side of the gap he's on. The hippies in this novel are murdering scum, and the saddest thing is Hirschfeld never bothers to explain to us what makes them tick, why exactly they want to kill their parents. It's only learned, late in the book, that they're part of a Weathermen cell, but beyond did they come up with this exact plan? It's inferred -- by the parents themselves -- that the kids are just killing their parents as an obvious statement of their hatred of the older generation, but still, something just doesn't gibe. Reading this novel, you get the feeling that every longhaired kid is a parent-hating psycho, just biding their time until they can hack mom and dad to death with a machete.

The heroes of the tale are Charles Livingston and Floyd Breed. Livingston is a typical Hirschfeld protagonist, a successful middle-ager who has come into a vast fortune as a talent agent. He lives in a posh NYC penthouse suite and is currently busy mollifying his Jerry Lewis-esque client, who's throwing tantrums in Vegas. Breed is a different sort of Hirschfeld protagonist, a salt of the earth type who lives in a hamlet in North Carolina and provides his services as a hunting and fishing guide. Throughout the first half of the novel, Hirschfeld plays on the similarities and differences of the two men: both are WWII vets, both are parents of college-age kids, but both went on to vastly different lives.

Again, Hirschfeld makes his bias easily known, as the Gary Cooper-esque Breed comes off as the stronger of the two, with Livingston constantly comparing himself to the man, and finding himself weaker. What brings them together is when Breed is attacked in his house by a knife-wielding hippie. Breed fights off the kid and then, instead of calling the cops, travels up to New York City, because he's sure the hippie who attacked him was a friend of Breed's daughter, Eva.

Breed hasn't heard from Eva in a year or so, and the two aren't the closest. Breed raised the girl alone after his wife was killed in a car wreck, and he and his daughter have little in common. So he goes up to New York, finds out that Eva hasn't attended college in months, and also discovers that the girl has disappeared. Breed then tracks down Eva's associates, and finds out that she was dating a boy named Kenneth Livingston, another long-haired student who has also dropped out of college.

Kenneth is of course Livingston's son, and Livingston too hasn't been in touch with his kid for a long time. But Livingston could care less; he raised his son to be independent, and figures he can take care of himself. He is also certain that Kenneth and Eva are just off having a good time, and thinks Breed is a fool for suspecting them of being involved with murderers -- in a subplot, we see yet another hippie kill a redneck-type couple, but this time the killer is caught, and sure enough Breed recognizes another of Eva's friends.

The first half of Father Pig appropriates the feel of The Searchers, with Breed and Livingston going about NYC in search of their kids, looking into stores and coffee shops and etc. Psychedelic-era New York City comes to life here, but Hirschfeld moreso uses the scene to further play on the gaping differences between Breed and Livingston. Throughout, Livingston still believes Breed is nuts and won't harbor the idea that his own son is plotting his murder.

Anyway, Breed is right -- the kids are plotting their deaths. We only get minimal insight into the workings of Eva and Kenneth; Eva seems to be the mastermind, working as a sort of operations command center. The various hippies call in to report to her on their status, and Eva pushes them on, insisting that they see the job through. There are a few other hippie-terrorists besides, including the son of a prominent author who begins to have second thoughts about murdering his folks.

As Breed and Livingston search on, more murders occur, and in each case the killers scrawl "Father Pig" in red ink on the walls, in true Manson Family fashion. Breed and Livingston part ways after failing to find their kids, but not before Hirschfeld gets to throw in a mod-psychedelic party that the two attend, Livingston of course picking up a hippie chick. After which Hirschfeld focuses on Livingston, who becomes the main protagonist, traveling around for work, picking up various starlets-to-be, wondering if Breed is correct in that his son is a murderer.

The last quarter of the novel again shows a different side of Hirschfeld; after various murders and surprises, Livingston finally realizes that his son is trying to kill him, and so lures the boy up to his cabin in the New York woods. Here Hirschfeld plays out a suspenseful scene of father and son trying to kill one another in the dense forest, laying traps, shooting at each other, even fighting hand to hand.

Father Pig isn't the best Hirschfeld I've read, but it isn't a bad novel by any means. It just isn't as sleazy as it wants to be, nor as horrific. I really wanted more insight into the workings of the Weathermen cell, more action from the hippie-terrorist point of view. On the plus side, Hirschfeld does reign in his writing here, delivering a taut narrative with no fat. He does still dole out the occasional goofy bit where he, as is his custom, tries to plumb the psychological depths of his characters, like here when Livingston sits in his Vegas suite and wonders over the chaos he has made of his life:

No clear image remained when Livingston woke. The girl was gone and only the female scent of her lingered. After a hot tub, Livingston sat naked in a deep chair near the sliding glass doors that opened onto the generous patio.

Desert heat washed over his chest and legs; and on his back and shoulders the cool bite of conditioned air. He felt divided between two opposing worlds, responsive to each but in control of neither.

"In control of neither?" All he has to do is shut the door or turn off the A/C! Hirschfeld also works in his customary sex scenes, though the majority of the women in question are young bimbos, either brain-fried hippie girls or actresses desperate to become famous. But then I figure this is another of Hirschfeld's gambits, showing the dichotomy between the generations.

So, a different side of Burt Hirschfeld. Not a better side by any means, just different. Finally, it seems that Father Pig is one of the more obscure books in the Hirschfeld catalog; I've never seen a copy in a used bookstore and had to get mine online.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Doomsday Warrior #3: The Last American

Doomsday Warrior #3: The Last American, by Ryder Stacy
December, 1984 Zebra Books

I can see how the Doomsday Warrior series could lead readers down the rabbit hole of obsession. Despite the goofy characters, the comic book vibe, the clunky writing, with this volume the series already elevates itself above others of its ilk, with a definite attempt at creating a sort of mythos. Embracing a spirit that is positively Nietzschean, author duo Ryder Stacy put their protagonist Ted Rockson through the paces in The Last American; whatever doesn't kill Rockson literally makes him stronger, and by the end of the novel he is a very different character from the one we first met two volumes ago. In other words, the authors aren't content to stay in the rigid "nothing ever changes" confines of the genre.

But then, the book's still pretty stupid at times. Ryder Syvertsen and Jan Stacy must've really traded off on the writing, because again there's that terrible dichotomy: one half of the book is clunky and addle-headed, with sometimes-lame writing and a hell of a lot of misspellings. The other half is pretty great, though, veering into psychedelic territory in a big way. From what little is known about the authors, they both were college students in the late '60s, so I think it's safe to say they were involved in the psychedelic scene. The first two books in the series got pretty far-out, but The Last American gets way out there, which is a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

We meet back up with Rockson -- aka "The Ultimate American," aka "The Doomsday Warrior," aka "Rock" -- as he's out on a research mission with some scientists. The party is attacked by big mutant spider-type things and Rockson's hurt in the attack. Injected with venom, Rockson's near death and must be carried back to home base of Cenutry City. There he is asked by the doctors to use his own mind to fight the infection. This is just the first of the psychedelic touches in the novel, as we journey into Rockson's own mind as he heals himself. This is also the first touch of the Nietzschean spirit of the tale, as Rockson emerges stronger than before.

Meanwhile, the far-strung rabble of the American collective is planning to meet together for the first time, each city and village sending representatives to vote on a new president and constitution. Rockson of course is elected to represent Century City, and takes with him Chen, the Chinese ninja martial arts master. Also elected to go are an elderly professor and a middle-aged lady who is highly ranked in Century City's civic arena. So again we have another section where Rockson must test himself against the mutated environs of post-nuke 2089 America. The series is very repetitive in a way, with each book sort of following the same template.

And to further the repetition of previous volumes, we still cut back and forth between Colonel Killov, KGB master, plotting against his Soviet fellows, among them Premiere Vassily and President Zhabnov. Killov has become a full-on monster, a sort of post-nuke Howard Hughes; he doesn't bathe, doesn't eat, doesn't do anything but sit around and plot his vengeance as he pops various pills. Last volume Killov attempted to assassinate Vassily; this time Zhabnov sends assassins of his own after Killov. But the man has become death itself, and makes the reader anticipate the day when we finally have a face-to-face confrontation between Killov and Rockson.

Also appearing from the previous volume is Kim, daughter of the man who hopes to become the first elected president of post-nuke America. Kim as you'll recall was the captured beauty who gave her virginity to Rockson while the two were locked up in twin cages. They're in love and Rockson can't wait to see her again. However the only purple-prosed sex scene in The Last American comes from an awesomely unrelated-to-anything development where Rockson, on the trip to the presidential committee meeting, scouts ahead and comes upon a village of Amazon beauties.

The women hate men -- their bible is a pre-war feminist tract titled Man, The Enemy -- but they use them long enough to impregnate each of the women before killing them. Rockson comes upon a pile of (male) skulls and escapes, but not before one of the beauties catches hold of his hybrid animal as it charges away. Rockson fights her off and takes her to a remote spot, where of course they soon get busy. After which Rockson heads back for the rest of his party, the whole Amazon incident just sort of brushed off. Like I say, it had nothing to do with anything, but damn it was fun.

An unusual thing about The Last American is there isn't much action for the duration. Rockson doesn't even fight "the Reds" until toward the very end of the book -- as expected, the presidential committee is attacked by the Russians and a megaton warhead is dropped on the place. Rockson's hit by the blast -- again, it doesn't kill him -- and he awakens in the hut of a towering mountain man who calls himself Mount Ed. Rockson is burning to find out what happened to Kim; eventually he discovers that she and her father, both nearly dead from radiation poisoning due to the blast, were taken away by the mysterious Glowers.

Here the novel goes full-tilt into the realm of psychedelia. The Glowers are mutants who speak telepathically, meaning that their dialog IS ALL IN CAPS. Their glowing bodies are twisted so that the internal organs are on the outside. Their powers are cosmic, to such an extent that they can change reality and even suck the radiation out of infected humans. They travel about on land ships, the sails apparently driven by cosmic winds. When the Glowers first rescue Kim and her father, there's a frankly awesome scene where the Glowers power their ship on through the night, and their bodies glow against the vibrant hues of the post-nuke starscape; of anything I've ever read, this scene comes the closest to capturing the feel of a blacklight poster in print.

It's while tracking after the Glowers that Rockson has his only fight with the Reds in the novel. Cornered in a desolate patch of land, they're attacked by around 40 Soviet troops in these glider-type contraptions. One thing about the Doomsday Warrior series is it definitely won't appeal to those who like their men's adventure grounded in reality or accurate weapons detail. Ryder Stacy can't even get their own created weaponry correct; early in the book it's drilled into us that the Century City-created "Liberator assault rifles" only fire clips of 15 rounds, but during this scene it's repeatedly stated that Rockson is firing a clip of 50 rounds. Regardless, it's a fun scene, with the patented gore of this series's action scenes -- lots of guts exploding and showering to the ground as the various Reds are blasted apart.

The novel finishes on another psychedelic scene; the Glowers arrive and pick up Rockson and Ed. Due to their omniscience they not only know who Rockson is but also where they could find him. Kim, still in a coma, refuses to heal for some reason, and the Glowers know that Rockson can save her with his love. This entails an elaborate scene where Rockson mentally joins up with the Glowers's collective entity and they all journey into the pits of Kim's soul. We are far beyond the limits of the men's adventure genre here.

After saving Kim -- her soul was imprisoned in a time warp, it turns out -- Rockson comes out of the collective mind entity feeling more powerful, more in tune with the cosmos. The Glowers inform him that he is capable of telepathic powers, and advise him to cultivate his talents. Again, the authors are building toward something, with the series coming off like a post-nuke Dune, Rockson its Maud'dib. Another nice change of pace with this series is its heavy continuity; there are many references to the previous two volumes, which gives it all the feeling of an epic.

Anyway, I really enjoyed The Last American, and I'm happy that as of now I finally have all 19 volumes of the series -- and they weren't easy to find.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Penetrator #14: Mankill Sport

The Penetrator #14: Mankill Sport, by Lionel Derrick
May, 1976 Pinnacle Books

As if realizing his version of the Penetrator was becoming more sadistic than the villains he fought, author Chet Cunningham in this installment tones down his approach, with hero Mark Hardin coming off more like a "regular" men's adventure hero and less like the ruthless psycho of previous Cunningham books. Or who knows, maybe Pinnacle Books requested the change.

At any rate, when we meet Hardin in the opening pages of Mankill Sport, he's on vacation with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Joanna Tabler, a Federal agent who has worked with (and gone to bed with) Hardin in previous volumes -- supiciously enough, only those volumes written by Cunningham. The couple is spending time in the beachfront home of Joanna's married friends, and here we not only get scenes of Hardin playing with the kids -- complete with him giving them horsey rides on his back!! -- but also "emotional moments" where Hardin and Joanna share a heart-to-heart and Joanna cries because she wants to marry Hardin and have his kids, but they both know it could never happen. Without question, the Mark Hardin here presented is a far cry from the torture-loving sociopath of #12: Bloody Boston.

Even more unbelievably, Cunningham continues to reign in Hardin's bloodlust for the duration of the novel, only allowing him to cut loose toward the very end. But even then, he shows little of the sadism displayed in previous Cunningham offerings. However Cunningham does make his villains pretty sadistic; this time out the target is Johnny Utah, a mob gangster from Detroit who is involved in the "narco trade" and has also been behind a lot of murders. When we meet Utah he's about to waste a cop, and here Cunningham comes off like a proto-David Alexander, detailing in endless detail the gory death of a minor character:

The slug caught Sergeant Manning on the chin and drove half the bone straight back into his mouth, pushed it past more tissue, then ripped and tore through the policeman's neck bone and heavy muscles, decapitating him. Manning's head, carried backward by the tremendous force of the magnum slug, flopped against his back as his body, which had not yet received the nearly instantaneous nerve responses, remained erect for a fraction of a second. Then his knees buckled and dropped him to a sitting position before his torso fell backward, completely covering his severed head which remained attached to the body only by a few strained muscles and stretched tendons.

Did I mention that Manning only appeared on the previous page, and didn't even have a single line of dialog? Anyway, Utah is as mentioned involved in all sorts of illicit stuff, but his latest plan is to hunt man -- "the most dangerous game," of course. Utah has bought a huge patch of land in the Canadian wilderness; here Utah assembles fellow gangsters and villains, among them a German sharpshooter, with the intent of setting loose one captive at a time into the wilderness, and then hunting after them.

Utah and his men snatch various runaways and transients from local Canadian towns and imprison them in cages on the property, leaving them there until their moment arrives. In a hasty and unelaborated subplot, one of the captives is a young hooker who runs afoul of one of Utah's colleagues; due to her big mouth she too finds herself in a cage, waiting to be hunted. And, of course, all of the prisoners are nude.

Hardin spends the majority of the book in research mode, only getting in one quick firefight when sneaking into Utah's mansion in Detroit. Here he figures out something is going on in Canada, and so for a long portion of the narrative Hardin snoops around a small town, trying to figure out the connection between Utah and the disappearance of so many locals. Gradually he deduces what's going on, and so poses as a bum in the hopes that Utah's men will capture him. Sure enough they do, and Hardin finds himself naked and caged with the rest of the captives, just where he wants to be.

I guess it's part of the charm of men's adventure novels that the hero, despite being nude, caged, and unarmed, knows that he is more than a match for the armed villains who have caught him, and can't wait for them to set him into the wilderness and start hunting after them, certain that he will make quick work of his pursuers. I mean, all tension and suspense is lost, because we readers also know that Hardin will have no difficulty turning the tables.

But while he is caged we get the brain-scarring scene of Hardin actually throwing his own excrement at Utah. You read that right. Utah of course has no idea who Hardin is, but after Hardin berates the guy, screams and rages, and throws shit at him (literally), Utah finally has had enough and sets Hardin free into the wilds. But Utah's so pissed that Hardin won't have the obligatory hour before his pursuers come after him.

Again, little matter. Mark Hardin, as we'll recall, has been trained in all of the esoteric arts of the Cheyenne warrior. The men who come after him provide little challenge, and soon enough Hardin has armed himself with an appropriated M-16. Very quickly he frees the captives and captures Utah. Here again, in the strangest moment of all, Cunningham still presents a "kinder, gentler" Mark Hardin. You'd figure Hardin would basically butcher Utah, but instead Hardin just takes him out of action with a shot and then ties the man up, allowing the captives their chance to vent their rage on the bastard -- but only to a point.

When the captives start to get sadistic, especially the hooker, Hardin blows away Utah with a mercy shot, stating that even such scum deserved more respect. I mean, who the hell is this guy?? We're talking here about a character who basically crippled an unarmed teenager in #14: Hijacking Manhattan, for absolutely no reason. I think it's safe to say there was some behind-the-scenes tinkering going on with this series. But who knows, maybe this was a momentary lapse in the sadism of Cunningham's version of Hardin. I guess I'll find out as I continue to read the series.

It does look, though, like the authors tried to goof with each other: Cunningham ends the novel with Hardin actually planning to take the hooker back with him to the Stronghold -- you know, the top-secret base of operations for Hardin and his two partners -- and wondering what the Professor and David Red Eagle will have to say about it. As if Cunningham was baiting writing partner Mark Roberts -- checking the next volume, however, proves that the hooker goes unmentioned. I guess she didn't like living with three guys. Plus it would be hard to turn tricks in the middle of the desert.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Baroness #7: Flicker of Doom

The Baroness #7: Flicker of Doom, by Paul Kenyon
December, 1974 Pocket Books

This penultimate volume of the Baroness series finds our heroine battling a threat very similar to the one in her previous adventure. Only whereas the doomsday device in #6: Sonic Slave was based on sound, the evil-genius-created device in Flicker of Doom is based on sight. This adventure even takes place in Morocco, again quite similar to the Middle Eastern locale of Sonic Slave.

But then, this series has been based on repetition from the start. Each novel has followed basically the same template, as if Donald Moffitt (aka "Paul Kenyon") was following some chart. Despite all of this, the series is still fun, always delivering pulpy plots with a good heaping of violence. And let's not forget the pages and pages of graphic sex scenes, though how could we? Actually the Baroness is a bit more frisky this time out, bedding three men during the course of the novel. She even finds time to smoke a little dope, something I don't think she's done since way back in #1: The Ecstasy Connection.

Flicker of Doom continues on the series-improvement begun in Sonic Slave; I'm almost sad that the next volume is the last. It seems to me that Moffitt was becoming more adjusted to writing action series fiction; with each volume he has better worked the Baroness's large team into the plots. Here he does his best job yet, with each of her teammates actually doing something useful instead of just standing around until the gun-blazing finale.

Also Moffitt here slightly tones down the too-perfect qualities of the Baroness, making her a bit more human and likable. He even appears to have been inspired by Hector Garrido's cover paintings for the previous books; at the finale of Flicker of Doom, the Baroness actually wears a skin-tight black costume which appears to be identical to the one Garrido has drawn for her since the first volume.

The main villain in this novel isn't as colorful as previous ones, but still entertaining: Don Alejandro, descendant of Inquisitors, who wishes to reclaim his family's control of Morocco. In order to do this he has, with the help of his simian assistant Dr. Funke, created a device which induces epilletic fits. The fits are induced by lights which flicker so subtly that the eye can't see them, but once directed upon the subject a messy and painful death quickly ensues. Already the duo has killed off high-ranking officials and Iranian soldiers (this was back when Iran was still "friends" with the US).

Dr. Funke is actually the more entertaining villain, a German brute who looks just like an ape. However I kept laughing, because every time I read "Dr. Funke" I flashed back to the character Dr. Tobias Funke on Arrested Development, a show I miss to this day. Funke, we're told, is a sexual deviant, and enjoys using his own seizure-studies to take advantage of women. Of course he sets his perverted sights on the Baroness as soon as she arrives on the scene in Morocco, where Funke and Alejandro have set up headquarters in Alejandro's palatial estate.

After the usual set-up, the Baroness ventures to Morocco with the cover story that there she will pose for a new line of "Angelface" cosmetics, for which she's being paid half a million dollars. Again we are constantly reminded how beautiful and gorgeous she is. While she attempts to figure out the culprit behind these latest attacks, her team handles their own assignments. Ironically, each teammate is at one point in their mission discovered and confronted by several attackers. In each case, the Baroness's teammates are able to fight their way out and avoid being captured. However when the Baroness is discovered and attacked, she is captured.

I know, this is so Moffitt can deliver the required scene of a bound and nude Baroness who must free herself. But once again I say that the Baroness comes off as the weakest member of her own team. Whereas her subordinates are able to overcome odds and escape, the Baroness is always outfought and captured. It's happened in every volume yet.

But even so, her capture again leads to the best scene in the book. Taken prisoner by a group of Islamic terrorists in a shadowy section of a Moroccan bazaar, the Baroness -- again, despite her struggling -- is bound to a chair and about to be tortured. What with the sadistic, lecherous torturer and his host of bladed equipment, it all comes off like something out of a sweat mag.

Freeing herself in a pretty cool fashion (one I don't think would work in reality, but so what), the Baroness lays waste to a horde of men, once again fighting in the nude. This series always excels when it features the Baroness alone (and usually naked) against several attackers...though I always wonder if she fights so well after being captured, why can't she fight just as well before being captured? As a matter of fact she's captured twice in Flicker of Doom, first in the bazaar and later in Alejandro's villa, where Moffitt can deliver another required scene: the Baroness strapped into some insane torture device.

The epilepsy-inducing gizmo is more than a match for the Baroness, and she's quickly overcome. Dr. Funke attempts to take advantage of her, but the Baroness is saved by a brazen act of deus ex machina -- a character previously thought dead turns out to still be alive, long enough that is to save the Baroness before croaking for real. Pretty lame. The finale isn't as gun-blazing as previous installments; rather, the Baroness suits up in the skin-tight black costume and sneaks into Alejandro's villa, bypassing the hidden epilepsy-inducing lights via a diving-style helmet.

This was another good volume, but once again I must question who this series was written for. I still say The Baroness was an attempt at a "women's adventure" series. The majority of the book is written from her perspective, so all of the sex scenes are rendered from a woman's point of view. More proof is offered up in the advertisements within the books themselves; previous volumes have featured ads for women-themed publications, in particular one about weight-loss tips for women. Flicker of Doom features an ad for a book titled Give Your Child A Superior Mind, complete with a photo of a lady playing with her toddler!

I don't think you'd see an ad like that in the back of a Marksman book, that's for sure...

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Sharpshooter #6: Muzzle Blast

The Sharpshooter #6: Muzzle Blast, by Bruno Rossi
April, 1974 Leisure Books

This is by far the clunkiest and roughest installment of the Sharpshooter yet, and I don't mean in a good way. Also it is quite obviously another novel that was written by Russell Smith as a volume of the Marksman series, but changed for whatever reason by editor Peter McCurtin into a Sharpshooter novel. Only, as usual, McCurtin (or one of his junior editors) did a poor job of copyediting, with hero Johnny Rock occasionally referred to as "Magellan" throughout the narrative.

There are other giveaways. For one, the "Rock" presented here is a grim figure with a penchant for taking people captive and drugging them, eventually murdering them in some sadistic fashion. He also travels around with his trusty "artillery case" which contains his firearms, syringes, and makeup kit. In short, this is once again Philip Magellan, the Marksman, not Johnny Rock. Also Smith again works in references to other Marksman novels he has written; early in the narrative "Rock" uses some heroin as bait, heroin which he got from "the score in New Orleans." This is a direct reference to the Smith-penned Marksman #11: Counterattack.

There isn't much of a plot here, which makes me suspect that Smith banged out his manuscript in no time. Maybe that's why he turned in so many volumes of both series, he was just a fast writer who could meet his deadlines. Fast doesn't always equal good, though. And Muzzle Blast is pretty bad. It's not only the shortest novel yet in the series, but it's also jammed with a lot of characters and a bizarre plot that never makes any sense. Characters just do shit with no rhyme or reason, and Smith never bothers resolving anything.

Rock is in Boston's Chinatown looking into the local heroin trade. Here we get the tidbit that a stuffed orange cat in a Chinese antique store is an indicator that the place sells heroin. The things you learn from these novels. Rock buys the cat from the store proprietor Po Yi-Po and his sexy associate Mai-Lin, but the cat has no heroin in it. Rock then stuffs the cat with his own appropriated heroin from the New Orleans caper and takes it back to the store. The essence here, apparently, is that Rock is trying to set himself up as a Mafia bigwig looking to move into the territory, but the subplot is lost.

Instead, Mai-Lin comes on strong to Rock and insists on taking off with him. They head up into Provincetown, Maine -- Smith apparently was from the area, as many of his novels take place in New England, for example the legendary Blood Bath -- where Rock now begins scoping out the local mobsters. Meanwhile Po Yi-Po is back in Boston, somehow oblivious to the fact that Mai-Lin, who he loves, has run off with another guy.

Before that though we have another instance of Rock's sadism, by which I mean Magellan's sadism. Much as in the aforementioned Blood Bath, Russell Smith is unconcerned with "action scenes" per se, and instead doles out sequences in which Rock just murders his enemies in cold blood. In another baffling and unexplained plot development, Po Yi-Po is being blackmailed by some dirty cops. Rock jumps them and takes one prisoner. Of course he drugs the guy and, later, decides he'll have to kill him. In a loving tribute to the scene in Blood Bath, Rock makes the handcuffed bastard walk away, his back to Rock, as Rock takes out his UZI and "surgically" blasts off the man's limbs and head.

There's also another WTF? subplot about some punk who keeps trying to break into Rock's Mercedes, and Rock beats the shit out of the guy, but strangely allows him to live. Anyway, the plot moves on. Now Rock is in Provincetown with Mai-Lin; here they meet up with a friend of Rock's, a local artist named Mike. From what I could make out, a meeting of Mafia hotshots is soon to take place here, in the mansion of local Mafioso. Rock and his two friends basically sit around in a local mob-run bar and bide their time.

I really get the feeling that Smith just knocked this one out in record time, probably under the influence of cheap booze. Stuff just happens with little setup or resolution. For example, while "hiding" in the P'town bar (despite the fact that somehow everyone knows her), Mai-Lin is picked up by one of the mobsters, who takes her captive -- the word is out that she's been seen with this "handsome" stranger whom everyone now suspects is Rock.

The dude tortures Mai-Lin with a lighter, playing the flames over her stomach and such, but then he leaves to take a phone call (?), and Mai-Lin, who through sheer deus ex machina happened to steal a pair of keys on her way into the bar, is able to free herself. When she later meets up with Rock, she never mentions being captured or tortured, and indeed acts like nothing even happened. And this isn't just because she's tough, it's because Smith obviously forgot all about it!

As in the other Smith novels I've reviewed here, the finale is rushed, but in a bigger way than normal. Once again Rock launches a one-man raid on the mobster meeting, blowing up the mansion. Smith doesn't even bother showing Rock setting up the dynamite; instead he just blows up some shit, shoots a few guys (in another bizarre moment, Rock allows one of them to live!?), then hops in Mike's dune buggy and roars off.

Meanwhile Po Yi-Po, who in his own subplot has finally discovered Mai-Lin's treachery, heads to Provincetown. His lust for the girl is such that he knows he will one day kill her due to his jealousy, and Smith implies that this is Po Yi-Po's exact intention. But in the strangest cop-out I've ever encountered in a novel, Smith brushes it all over. Rock, after his assault on the mobsters -- and en route to another assault on them -- stops off at Mike's beachside shack. There he finds the corpse of Po Yi-Po, which hangs outside the shack; inside, there is a note from Mike, stating that Po tried to poison Mai-Lin and him, and so the two of them have left for the hospital.

And believe it or not, here Muzzle Blast ends. I mean, it just ends! Did Mike or Mai-Lin die? What about Rock's assault on the second Mafia hideout? None of these questions are answered. And there are so many other questions. Was Smith's manuscript accidentally published with some pages missing? Or was Leisure in such a hurry to publish another installment that they could care less that the book had so many problems? What's strange is that the last several pages of the book are given over to ads for other Leisure books, more ads than normal, which indicates that Leisure knew it had to fill up extra pages.

I guess we'll never know. Anyway, Muzzle Blast sucks for the most part. However we do get a great line, courtesy Mai-Lin. While at the bar, a drunk saunters up to her and hits on her with the cliched line: "Is it true what they say about Chinese girls?" Mai Lin's answer: "It depends on how you look at it."