Monday, July 2, 2012

The Smuggler #3: Murder In Blue

The Smuggler #3: Murder In Blue, by Paul Petersen
November, 1974 Pocket Books

The Smuggler series continues to search for a consistent theme and tone as this third volume, as uneventful for the most part as the previous two, starts off like a James Bond-esque bit of international espionage before veering into an inner-city heroin-busting storyline straight out of Narc, before finally wrapping up in an overlong sequence about a Mayan cult, complete with supernatural stuff along the lines of the Mind Masters series.

Murder In Blue is not at all similar to its predecessor, Fools of the Trade. Also, there's some funny stuff going on here. Fools of the Trade featured our hero Eric "The Smuggler" Saveman rescuing a fellow ZED agent from a sadistic freak in the Caribbean. That volume ended with Saveman and the rescued agent, Kane, discussing their next mission, which would involve taking on poachers in Africa.

But here's the thing: Murder In Blue opens with Savemen in Russia, not Africa, smuggling out some intel and taking on the KGB. Once he returns to the US Saveman reflects on his past "three" adventures, Petersen serving up readers new to the series with recaps of what has gone on before -- and Saveman reflects on that poaching operation in Africa, a mission which apparently his father ("Doc" Saveman) also took part in.

On his official website, Paul Petersen states that there were 8 volumes in the Smuggler series. However only 7 were published. It seems obvious then that the original third volume featured Saveman in Africa fighting poachers; the way it is recapped here makes it clear that it was a full novel on its own, and besides, the finale of Fools of the Trade clearly set up the storyline. So what happened? Did Pocket Books just screw up and skip that volume, accidentally publishing Murder In Blue, which was supposed to be the fourth volume, as volume #3 instead?

That's one possibility, but I think there's another -- I think some behind-the-scenes manuevering was going on. Petersen's name is still on the cover, but Murder In Blue does not appear to be written by the same person behind the previous two novels. Fools of the Trade in particular was a clunky horror that traded off between red-herring plots, super-explicit sex, and sadistic torture-porn that was pretty damn shocking. Murder In Blue on the other hand is for the most part deftly handled in the narrative portion, with little of the clunkiness previously seen. Sure, it jumps all over the place story-wise, but still, there's none of the bizarre "touches" of Fools of the Trade (other than a sex scene midway through which, while being pretty explicit, still isn't as "Penthouse Letters" as the stuff in volume #2).

As I've mentioned, the copyright page states that this series was written in collaboration with someone named David Oliphant, and I'd still love to know how the writing duties were shared. Did he and Petersen switch off on volumes? Was Oliphant the "mastermind" behind Fools of the Trade? Or was the originally-planned third volume about hunting poachers in Africa just as bad as Fools of the Trade, and so Pocket Books hired some new ghostwriter in to "save" Saveman with a wholly-new installment?

It really doesn't matter, though, as I'm giving the series more thought than it deserves. While Murder In Blue is, as far as writing goes, better than its predecessors, the series as a whole just ain't up to snuff. Saveman is too perfect and the plots just aren't very gripping. And the plot-hopping mentioned above doesn't help much. The novel cannot make up its mind what it wants to be: the opening portion in Russia is entertaining, and again much slicker and more "mature" than those previous two books, with Saveman escaping the KGB by hiding in the wheel-well of a commercial plane.

But then the Narc-esque portion of the storyline is plodding, with Saveman on "vacation" in LA, where he wants to get to the bottom of a series of cult murders taking place. Mutilated bodies, painted blue and shot full of arrows, are turning up, and soon enough Saveman deduces that a heroin ring is behind it. This sequence is only saved by the presence of Amy Gazer, Saveman's old high school girlfriend, who runs a clinic. A raven-haired and voluptious beauty, Amy is sort of my ideal gal: fully part of the '70s New Age movement, she lives in a rolling estate where she sits lotus-style on a shag carpet and meditates, smokes dope, and consults her occult-themed library.

Saveman -- a smuggler, remember -- actually partakes of drugs this time out, a first for the series. After being shot up by a hallucinogen by escaping members of the cult, Saveman steers his car to Amy's place (she just appears in the narrative without much setup, by the way) and she instantly seduces him, a pretty steamy scene ensuing. Rather than the pages-long stuff in say the Baroness, which eventually bores the reader with its endless barrage of anatomical euphemisms, the scene here actually succeeds in generating a little heat.

After that, though, the storyline just gets boring. The third half of the novel features Saveman, Amy, and a professor deep in the Yucatan, searching for a Mayan temple in which the cult will stage their next big sacrifice. Here Petersen (or whoever wrote this) takes the opportunity to shoehorn in endless detail about Mayan history and customs, courtesy the blathering professor. Seriously, you can skip large portions of the narrative here. It's an obvious page-filling gambit.

Ironically the Mayan stuff is similar to another novel I recently read, John Eagle Expeditor #6: The Glyphs of Gold, which as you'll no doubt expect was much, much better. But here Petersen instills a supernatural element to the series which just doesn't jibe: Amy and the professor are caught, Amy stripped down and drugged, fated to become the cult leader's bride. A lurid scene ensues where, as part of the marriage ceremony, a group of priests masturbate on Amy(!) and then the leader takes her on an altar, his "engorged manhood" (which we are endlessly reminded is fucking huge) so incredible to Amy's drugged eyes that she basically just starts drooling with lust, giving herself completely to the Mayan cause.

Then Saveman shows up -- after the leader's had his way with Amy, by the way -- with an old Mayan priest who magically becomes younger and starts flying around, shooting blue balls of energy at the cult leader! I mean, what the hell's going on?? After which the priest tells Saveman that Amy's "gone," that she's not dead but not living, and must stay with the Maya -- oh, and she's probably pregnant with the cult leader's child. And Saveman basically shrugs and just leaves her there, high-tailing it back home to reunite with his dad and his superiors at ZED, so he can regale them with stories about how weird his "vacation" was.

Seriously, this was some weird stuff...but all of it was relayed in a clinical fashion, the style and narrative a lot more polished and professional than in the previous book. Now that I think of it, the style of Smuggler #1 might have been similar to this, so maybe Petersen and Oliphant just traded off on each volume? Who cares, I guess.

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