Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Specialist #5: The Maltese Vengeance

The Specialist #5: The Maltese Vengeance, by John Cutter
October, 1984 Signet Books

Unfortunately it’s one step forward, two steps back for the Specialist -– after a mostly-great fourth volume, author John Cutter (aka John Shirley) reverts to the repetitive, page-filling nature of the first two volumes of the series. The Maltese Vengeance is sort of a tedious affair, mostly given over to hero Jack Sullivan trying to figure out who wants to kill him while he’s vacationing on Malta, and Sullivan’s ensuing plans for vengeance. The reader spends the entire tale hoping that the plot will open up beyond this, but it never does.

My guess is that the breakneck publication pace was wearing Shirley down. The Psycho Soldiers was a cool slice of action exploitation, with a Charles Manson-esque killer running afoul of Sullivan. The Maltese Vengeance loses all of that, coming off like just a generic action novel. It opens with a bang, though: Sullivan, fishing off the coast of Malta, is fired on by a cannon from a fort in the harbor. Trying to find out who is behind his attempted murder, Sullivan takes on the local cops (not killing any of them) in his escape attempt, and eventually hooks up with Oliver “Ollie” Tryst (Oliver Twist??), a fellow mercenary and an old friend of Sullivan’s.

The two learn that the culprits were a force of American traitors, ‘Nam vets who now sell military hardware to terrorists. The guy in charge is Gortner, who back during the war massacred a village of innocents. During his massacre Gortner happened to murder a young Vietnamese woman and her child – this was the wife of Warneck, a disillusioned, drug-addicted shell of a man who now lives in Malta. It turns out that it was Warneck who summoned Sullivan to Malta; Warneck’s intent was to hire Sullivan to kill Gortner, but somehow Gortner’s men got hold of the news first, and so decided to take out Sullivan before he could take out them. Their mistake, as Sullivan often states, was that they didn’t kill him.

So this proves to be the plot entire. Gortner and his cronies are bringing in a host of new, experimental weaponry to sell to a delegation of Libyans. The most interesting character here is Skulleye, a Libyan so called due to the blue skulls tatooed on his eyelids. Skulleye you see was a follower of the infamous Blue Man, ie the terrorist leader Sullivan killed back in #3: Sullivan's Revenge. I guess Shirley must’ve realized he bumped off the Blue Man too soon, as he sets up Skulleye to be an even greater threat.

In fact Skulleye’s scenes are the only ones that bring to mind the better parts of the preceding novel. Skulleye is apparently impossible to kill, and there are several scenes where he’s shot up or blown away, only to come back to life. It’s a deft bit of dark comedy, and Shirley intimates that Skulleye will return in later volumes. Unfortunately the other characters aren’t nearly as memorable; Gortner in particular is pretty bland, and doesn’t get much narrative time, vastly outshone by Skulleye, who isn’t even the main villain of the piece.

As usual Sullivan still manages to get lucky, and here it’s with Rosalita, a fiery local beauty who throws herself at him. This entails the one graphic sex scene in the book, but Rosalita becomes a bit annoying, and in fact proves to be the (near) undoing of Sullivan and Tryst. Spurned by Sullivan, she tries to set him up, going to Gortner and telling him that Sullivan is planning a nighttime raid on Gortner’s compound. Gortner has his men lie in wait.

What’s unexpected is that this sequence proves to be the climax of the novel, taking up a full third of the narrative. It’s sort of endless, with Sullivan on the prowl in Gortner’s place, escaping the trap, fighting as he evades both Gortner’s soldiers and the Malta cops, rushing to a long standoff on a clifftop. It just kind of goes on and on, and again lacks the twisted nature of the last book.

Shirley still works in some of his humor, though. I haven’t figured out yet if he’s spoofing the stereotypical gung-ho action hero through Sullivan or what, but there’s a laughable part (intentional?) toward the very end where Sullivan, alone against a horde of enemy soldiers, psyches himself up to keep fighting by recalling the innocent people slain by Gortner all those years ago, and Sullivan starts screaming, “For the children!” as the enemy converge upon him. Shirely writes it that even the enemy soldiers are baffled at this, so who knows.

I didn’t much enjoy The Maltese Vengeance, but I figure this was only a momentary lapse. I mean, for all the boring stuff, there are still a few inventive touches, like the Arabic slavemaster Sullivan and Tryst deal with midway through the novel. And I still say The Specialist is everything those Gold Eagle Executioner novels should have been.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Baroness: The Unpublished Volumes

Now that I've finished the Baroness series, I wish there were more volumes to read. While I've never loved the books, they've all been entertaining, and the series definitely has an appeal. A long-lasting appeal, at that, with the Baroness Yahoo Group still going strong. Through the efforts of one particular member of that group, ppsantos, we've learned that Donald Moffitt was in fact the only author of the eight volumes in the series, but also that he wrote two more books, both which went unpublished (at least in English, but more on that later). We've also learned that Robert Vardeman was contracted to write an installment.

Reading through the various messages on the Baroness Yahoo Group, I've pieced together the below list of what these missing three novels would have been about, and also what order I think they would have been published.

#9: Death Is A Copycat -- This one was written by Donald Moffitt. According to some letters Moffitt wrote ppsantos over the past few years (and found in the Photos section of the Baroness Group), Moffitt became ill after turning in #8: Black Gold, and was unable to write for a while. In the meantime series honcho Lyle Kenyon Engel contracted Robert Vardeman to write an installment. In fact, Vardeman's installment might have been slated as #9 in the series, but what makes me suspect otherwise is that Death Is A Copycat was actually published, whereas Vardeman's novel never was. Anyway, this particular volume would have featured Triskelion, a three-legged villain (!) who threatened "to cause chaos by duplicating the world's currency."

As stated, this volume was published, but only in France, where the Baroness series was titled Penny. This installment appeared as the ninth and final volume of the Penny series, with the title Photo-Phobi. A poster on the Baroness Group named Hans Henrik actually read the book, and was kind enough to post a summary of it:

In Death is a Copy Cat Penelope battles a French tycoon, who has made his fortune by inventing the perfect photocopier. The tycoon intends to use his machines for counterfeiting the leading currencies of the world and create financial chaos, which would give him world domination.

This adventure certanly depicts the Baroness as we know her. She is taking care of the bad guys by breaking necks, crushing throats, smashing in heads, or strangling them. Many more are shot or killed with greandes.

Her sex-life is as usual quite imaginitive. She has sex in a barrel of vintage wine with the french duke she met at the end of the book Black Gold. But in this story she confines herself to just one lover.

The manuscript of Moffitt's original still exists, wedged away somewhere in his attic. Whether it will ever see light of day is anyone's guess.

#10: Quicktime Death -- This volume was the only one in the series not written by Donald Moffitt. It was written by Robert Vardeman, a writer I've not yet read, but I know he had his hand in many different series, including Nick Carter. All that's known about Quicktime Death is that it has something to do with "a drug that enhances reaction time." I can only suspect then that at some point in the novel the Baroness engages in high-speed sex. Again, this might have been slated to be the ninth volume of the series; no one is certain. One thing that is known is that it would have preceded the volume below, as on the Baroness Group Vardeman himself commented that, when he turned in Quicktime Death, Engel told him that "the next volume" would be about a black hole. Like Moffitt, Vardeman still has his copy of the manuscript.

#11: A Black Hole To Die In -- Of all the unpublished volumes, this one interests me the most. In this installment "the Baroness goes into space to save Earth from a mini-black hole that both the Chinese and the Russians are trying to capture." Given Moffitt's later focus on science fiction, this volume has a lot of potential, and I hope it might someday be published, whether as an ebook or as a real book. It's currently sitting up in Moffitt's attic, alongside the manuscript for Death Is A Copycat.

So will these missing three volumes ever be released? I'm not holding my breath. The series was the property of Book Creations, owned by Lyle Kenyon Engel, who passed away in 1986. His wife passed away in 1994. That left only Engel's son, George, who was stated to be 47 in a 1982 interview with the family. Book Creations was once an immense fiction factory, employing 40-60 staff writers and cranking out paperback bestsellers. It seems that all publications ceased around 1999, and now George Engel is the last member of the company. By all accounts, he is unresponsive to emails and letters, especially those asking that he consider epublishing the Baroness novels.

A part of me says the authors should just damn the torpedoes and self-publish their manuscripts, given Engel's unresponsiveness, but I'm betting that as soon as that happened, Engel would get real interested, real fast, and call in the lawyers. As another poster on the Baroness Group suggested, the smart thing to do would be to approach the guy with a business proposal, buying the rights to all of the Book Creations action series (The Baroness, John Eagle Expeditor, The Butcher, Nick Carter, etc) and releasing them as ebooks. I bet some serious money could be made from that, but I'm a lazy man, and I do enough business proposals at work.

The picture up top by the way is by series cover artist Hector Garrido; this one's labelled as the sketch for an an untitled/unpublished manuscript, so many suspect it might've been the cover for one of these unpublished novels. It moreso looks to me like it's an early draft of the cover for #1: The Ecstasy Connection. I say this because it features the obese villain Petronius Sim as well as the electronic brain the Baroness was hooked into in that intial volume, which was my favorite in the series.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Arrow #2: Naked Mistress

Arrow #2: Naked Mistress, by Walter Deptula
No month stated, 1974 Curtis Books

I’ll admit, I judged this one by its cover. Also due to the content – the back cover implies that Naked Mistress delves into the occult craze of the early ‘70s, and to a certain point it does. But the proceedings are ruined by a listless plot combined with a grating narrative style that quickly drives the reader nuts. Honestly, you could almost suspect that “Walter Deptula” is nothing more than a psuedonym of notorious hack Michael Avallone.

Arrow is Frank Arrow, a Hawaii-based art thief who grew up in the Little Italy section of New York, where he apparently once tangled with the Mafia. Arrow is now a sort of good-guy thief; he finds artwork that has been stolen and returns it to insurance agencies for a hefty finder’s fee. Apparently this life has been good to him, as Arrow lives on a rolling expanse with several employees at his beck and call, including a personal pilot (Henessey) and a sort of butler/majordomo/jack of all trades (Kimo.)

Arrow is a big problem with Naked Mistress. Way too perfect, way too idealized, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if he wasn’t also the narrator. Personally I don’t think first-person narrative works in the men’s adventure genre, one reason I’ve steered clear of the Nick Carter books. And first-person really doesn’t work here, because Arrow’s narrative is rendered in a sub-Avallone style that annoys the piss out of you. Like, short sentences. Real short. Shorter. Through the whole book. Even the characters. Yeah. They speak that way too. Punchy. And short paragraphs. Most just one line. Punchy. Too punchy. Then an ellipsis…

How much of this sort of thing can the reader take? Due to this grating style, Naked Mistress, which is barely 160 pages, seems twice as long. It’s not helped by the fact that little actually happens for long periods. Arrow’s latest caper involves the “Blacker Virgins,” a series of five paintings by Vermeer, recently discovered, which are “steeped in a history of Satanism.” As the story develops, Vermeer was hired back in the late 1600s by a satanic baron to paint a series of portraits of the baron’s mistress, spoofs of the Virgin Mary in all sorts of sexual poses.

The paintings are now on a world tour, making their way to Hawaii. As part of a PR event, the museum has tracked down gorgeous socialite Angel Blacker, a descendant of the mistress in those original Vermeer paintings, to attend the gallery opening. And of course, Angel is a dead ringer for her ancestor. Arrow gets wind that the Hawaii mob (who knew there was such a thing?) plans to heist the paintings. Further, Arrow discovers that the guy behind the planned heist is the brother of the mobster Arrow (apparently) killed back in the first volume of the series, and the mobster wants to kill two birds in Hawaii: steal the paintings and kill Arrow.

This proves to be the opening quarter of the novel, with Arrow trying to figure out how to avoid getting killed while still getting the paintings for himself. Then he meets Angel Blacker, who comes on to Arrow the moment she meets him at a lavish party. You remember how I said the guy was idealized. But while on their way for an impromptu casual screw (ah, the seventies), the duo are attacked and captured by the mobster who has it in for Arrow. Eventually Arrow – for reasons that strike of bullshit – is taken along on the art heist, for which Angel has been kidnapped as well.

Deptula’s take on action scenes is again rendered bland due to the “punchy” hardboiled-esque writing, which in my view makes everything flat and boring. With some inside help Arrow’s able to get free, and a few goons get mowed down by machine guns here, but nothing graphic or excessive. But at its end the mobster is dead, the now-stolen paintings are somewhere out to sea on their way to an unknown location, and Arrow and Angel have yet to screw. This last point is quickly dispensed with, though Deptula shirks on the dirty stuff as well…Angel does however have a recurring phrase she intones as she lays beneath Arrow: “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.” I guess Deptula’s intent is that this is a sort of incantation on Angel’s part, but it’s still pretty funny.

Angel, you see, is a sort of witch; she claims to be descended from one (the “naked mistress” of those Vermeer paintings, natch), and while she’s staying at Arrow’s he often catches her standing nude before the moon and praying to some god she calls “Rascha.” Unfortunately Deptula also skirts around the occult stuff. I really wanted an early ‘70s descent into satanic sleaze, but only got a mere dip into it. Instead, Angel heads to Mexico, where her fiance, the mysterious millionaire Salazar, lives – actually, he rules there, owning the entire village and surrounding area. Angel, despite her growing love for Arrow, keeps saying she “belongs” to Salazar.

Here boredom sets in as Arrow hobknobs about the Mediterranean in search of those stolen Blacker Virgin paintings. After a lot of padding he discovers the stolen paintings were forgeries. Clues lead him back to a reclusive village in Mexico…you guessed it, the one ruled by Salazar. When Arrow and his pilot Henessey head there, they are immediately taken under guard at the airport, told that the area is under martial law and strangers are not allowed in. Arrow lies that they’re here to visit Angel Blacker, which makes everything different, and they are allowed to stay, but still under guard.

Arrow’s meanwhile told that Angel is “indisposed,” and, once Arrow finds out that Salazar is hated by the populace due to his Satanism and his tyranny, not to mention that there’s an entire militia united against him, Arrow still doesn’t put two and two together and figure out that Salazar is the bad guy of the tale. There’s a laughable point toward the very end where Arrow finally gets it, and he’s thunderstruck. Meanwhile the reader was ahead of him chapters before.

It all leads to a raid on Salazar’s castle while a Black Mass is in progress; Salazar has apparently hypnotized Angel into believing she is her “naked mistress” ancestor reborn, and further Salazar himself is the old baron reborn, and I guess united the two are going to usher in a new dark age or something. And by the way, Salazar has the actual Vermeer paintings! (Exclamation point added in jest because of course he has them…we figured that part out a long time ago, too, I mean why else would the forger have last been seen in Salazar’s village??)

The action in the finale is also rushed, with the militia leader planting a bomb in Salazar’s place and everything coming down during the Black Mass. Arrow heads back to Hawaii to lick his wounds. Oh, and his cat is dead – turns out Angel killed it while she was staying there, as for some witchly reason she had an aversion to cats and so strangled it. And she maybe seduced one or two of Arrow’s men, while “possesed” by the spirit of her ancestor. Or something.

Really, this was kind of a frustrating read. It might’ve been better, if only. The narrative. Just too punchy. And the characters. Bland. Real bland. Boring. And now an ellipsis...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bronson: Blind Rage (aka Bronson #1)

Bronson: Blind Rage, by Philip Rawls
No month stated, 1975 Manor Books

This was the first of three novels about a "street vigilante" named Bronson. I suspect that Manor Books just outsourced a Death Wish ripoff idea to a handful of writers and lumped it all together as a "series." For the Bronson books are a series in the loosest sense; each volume was written by a different author, and there's no continuity between the novels. No one knows who wrote this incredible first installment; the second one, Streets of Blood, was written by my man Leonard Levinson; the third, Switchblade, was written by Joseph Chadwick.

Levinson has told me he was just contracted by Manor to write a vigilante novel about a character named "Bronson," with no guidance from Manor to follow any series template or continuity. Joseph Chadwick was probably told the same for Switchblade. Given this, I consider Bronson moreso just three separate, standalone novels, related only by the fact that the protagonist in each is named "Bronson," and also the covers for all three volumes were drawn by the artist Raymond Kursar. Even Bronson himself is a different character in each book, ranging from the sadist of this first volume to a more considerate sort of vigilante in Switchblade, as Marty McKee has noted.

But on to the novel at hand, Blind Rage. Simply put, this book is incredible, and easily one of the best men's adventure novels I've yet had the pleasure to read. But make no mistake, this is a brutal novel, not for the squeamish, a novel of raw and nihilistic violence. And yet for all that it is written with a deft, literate hand; whoever this version of "Philip Rawls" was, he was a hell of a writer. His characters spring to life, such that you actually care for them, his narrative is masterful, and he doesn't POV-hop a single damn time.

The only failing (at least, I thought it was a failing at first) is the character Bronson himself. He is a sadist of the first order in Blind Rage, and the problem is we never get a sense of the man he was before the murder of his wife and children. In fact we never even meet those characters; Blind Rage opens with the murder of Bronson's wife, as two hoodlums rape her and kill her, before moving on to the kids (this part thankfully is not described). When we pick up with Bronson he's dealing with the fact that the courts let the murderers off scott free; it turns out they were twins, notorious sickos from California, and due to their influence over powerful people the brothers were able to escape justice due to some legal manuevering.

Bronson, we briefly learn, married into the upper crust of society, and his wealthy friends implore him to just let it go and move on. Bronson meanwhile tracks down the culprits, determined to get vengeance. But nowhere in the novel do we have any flashbacks from Bronson to his wife or kids; in today's world this of course would be played up to maximum maudlin effect, with Bronson frequently in tears at the memory of playing catch with his kids or holding his wife. There's none of that here -- Blind Rage is as lean and mean as you'd expect a piece of '70s pulp to be. My mistake though was thinking this was a miss on the author's part. I was wrong; instead, Rawls was merely setting us up to truly gut us later in the novel.

The author brings to life the dark underbelly of Cincinnati, not to mention that of his protagonist. Bronson discovers that he has a hell of a mean streak -- not that he pauses to reflect on it. But within a day of beginning his search, he's already acquired a 9mm pistol with silencer and blown away a few people, including an innocent floozie. As he tracks around, picking up the pieces that will lead him to the rapist-murder brothers (their names are Bennie and Bernie, he discovers), Bronson continues to kill in cold hate, especially those who could later identify him. In particular there is the first of many disturbing scenes where Bronson coldly murders a defenseless young streetwalker, merely because she's provided him with information on where the "Bs" (as the brothers are known) are temporarily staying, and Bronson's afraid she could later identify him to the police.

But the violence he dishes out to the guilty... Anyway, the way the violent life of the lone wolf goes in these novels, you know Bronson will be picking up a woman soon. And it's another feather in Rawls's cap that the female character, a pretty Hispanic named Teresa, is without question the strongest in the novel, leaping right off of the page. She's only 17, an orphan in all but name (her dad, who hates her for not being a son, has kicked her out), and much wiser than her years would imply. She comes on strong to Bronson, who has rented a room in the rundown tenement building where Teresa lives. Soon she's living with him, and Rawls develops a touching rapport between the two. I mean, no kidding, these characters really get to you, and Rawls handles the relationship with aplomb.

Bronson further arms himself with a shotgun, leading to another violent scene where he takes on some hoodlums. Teresa proves her worth here, backing up Bronson with the 9mm. Not because she's the cliched "tough chick" of action pulp, but because she's in love with Bronson, and again it all comes off very well. Even better is a later scene where Bronson and Teresa are attacked by some Hispanic gangsters during a blizzard, and Teresa slices the hell out of one of them with her pocket switchblade. She's one tough cookie for sure, and her dialog is almost like street poetry. Is it clear yet how much I loved this novel?

Our "hero" Bronson though is something of a schizophrenic. The quiet scenes with Teresa are touching because it's obvious they're developing feelings for one another, and Teresa, who eventually learns who Bronson is and what he's doing, commits herself to his cause and wants to stay with him through thick and thin. Bronson meanwhile begins to realize he too is falling in love. But when he gets to the associates of Bennie and Bernie, he's all business, even if it's people who only know the brothers tangentially.

The stuff Bronson pulls throughout this novel is insane, from gunning people down in cold blood to stripping a woman, tying her to her bed, dousing her with kerosene, and setting her on fire -- putting the lighted match to her pubic hair, naturally. I haven't even mentioned the part where he literally emasculates a guy with a shard of glass, then proceeds to eviscerate the guy. Or the scene where he ties down another guy, builds a wire cage around his hand and head, and sets hungry rats loose into the cages, where they slowly gorge themselves on the guy's bodyparts! Or how about the part where he pours Drain-O on another guy's exposed genitals? Yep, that's our hero.

As mentioned, though, Bronson never once reflects on this sadism. Maybe once or twice, early in the novel, he thinks back on how he murdered someone, but it's always with the concern that he might get caught. It soon becomes a bit of recurring dark comedy that every time Bronson kills someone in a brutally sick fashion, Rawls will write how Bronson methodically wipes away his fingerprints. It soon becomes the punchline to a morbid joke.

Rawls crams every lurid, exploitative thing he can into this book. The villains are thoroughly despicable, and the crazy thing is -- they all deserve those sadistic deaths! They make snuff films, they put children in sexual bondage, the works. And of course they get away with it all, due to the uselessness of the courts as is mandatory in '70s pulp, but also due to their influence over important people, who apparently go to the twin brothers for all their lurid needs. Bronson sets out to even the score on this point as well.

Blind Rage works as a standalone novel, and one does not get the impression that it is leading into a sequel. It comes to a fitting end, Bronson's entire tale fitting within one novel. My groundless suspicion is that some author sent an unsolicited manuscript to Manor Books and an editor there decided to turn it into a series. Really though, it's not. And really, I'd love to know who this version of "Philip Rawls" was. As far as the genre goes, he's a master, well above the average. I don't believe he's someone I've read before. The narrative style was not familiar from any other books I've read.

The author left some clues, though; he likes to use the word "pillow" as a verb, for one; ie, "He pillowed the shotgun to his shoulder." I've never seen that done before. Also, in one instance he refers to a bullet in the narrative as a "pellet;" the only other author I've seen do this is Russell Smith. But this clearly isn't the work of Smith, despite the focus on rats. And speaking of focus, Rawls spells the word "focused" as "focussed," which I believe is the British fashion. So who knows, maybe he was British. If he was, he certainly had a handle on inner-city American slang. But the book itself doesn't read like any of the British pulp I've yet encountered, which always seems a bit too "pristine" for me. At any rate, the writing here is incredibly strong and I can only hope to come across more work from this author someday -- not to mention to find out who he was.

I've read a lot of these novels over the years, so it takes something really special to get to me. Blind Rage did. In fact this is one of the few books in the genre that unsettled me, not just due to the graphic sadism but also the impact of the characters and their fates. It's miles beyond the usual output of the men's adventure genre, and it's a shame it's so obscure. I recommend it without reservation -- this is one hell of a great novel.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What In The Hell Is "The Rat Bastards?" By Len Levinson

As I mentioned in my review of The Last Buffoon, Len Levinson's WWII series The Rat Bastards has been released in Ebook format, and all 16 novels in the series are available on Amazon. Back in April Len sent me the below essay, all about the creation of the series and his thoughts on it. As he mentions, the essay was for a Rat Bastards blog that Premier publishing was going to launch, but here we are four months later and the blog has not materialized.

So, with Len’s permission, it’s my pleasure to post the article here. Enjoy!

by Len Levinson

THE RAT BASTARDS is the overall title of a series of 16 novels by John Mackie (one of my 22 pseudonyms), originally published in paperback by Jove beginning 1983, and describing the progress and regress of a U.S. Army platoon of oddballs and badasses in the South Pacific during World War Two, starting with the landings on Guadalcanal, and continuing to Bougainville and New Guinea.

A few weeks ago my literary agent Barbara Lowenstein requested that I write a blog about THE RAT BASTARDS, which recently got resurrected thanks to her efforts, published by Premier as e-books under my real name, Len Levinson, available at Amazon.

Barbara said e-books sell better when authors go on the internet and hustle. So get ready, ladies and gentlemen - here's comes my digitized cyberspace hustle:

Actually, I could never in a million years hustle THE RAT BASTARDS as well as paperback jacket copy on #1:

Start with an insane sergeant with a genius for leadership and a lust for blood. Add a bank robber. A racketeer. A guy who goes berserk on the battlefield. A gun-happy Texan. A silent Apache. A movie stuntman who swings from trees. Put them all together and you have the killing machine known as:


You can't kill 'em, and you can't take 'em alive

How did a mild-mannered, philosophical dude, namely me, get involved with such a savage, bloody project?

I confess that I created and wrote THE RAT BASTARDS because I'm fascinated by war, probably because I was raised on it, only four years old in Massachusetts when Germany invaded Poland, and six when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

As my mind formed, it filled with news of war, including regular reports of local men killed and wounded. Often it seemed that the Allies were losing, and America would become occupied by fanatical Nazi murderers and/or diehard Japanese head-choppers.

The home front was not disconnected from the war. Metal and paper collections were common, ration books issued, air raid drills regularly occurring in schools, women working in munitions factories, and victory by no means certain. An atmosphere of desperation pervaded the land, intensified by many serious reversals, including one-third of the U.S. battle fleet demolished at Pearl Harbor.

Not only was World War Two impacting me daily, my father was a World War One veteran, having served with the famed Second Division in six major battle engagements, and wounded at Chateau-Thierry. A two-inch diameter sunburst scar on the left side of his forehead near his temple was obvious to his dying day.

We lived together alone, my mother having passed on. Pops managed our apartment like a barracks, he the sergeant and I the private. As I grew older, I read many articles and books about war, trying to make sense of how and why nations went to war, and how and why soldiers could bring themselves to kill total strangers.

I enlisted in the Army at age 19, during the Korean War, because I wanted the G.I. Bill for college. Peace talks were underway at Panmunjon, so I assumed the war would end officially soon, and I'd enjoy a peaceful military career in some exotic post like Tokyo, wearing my snazzy Ike jacket, surrounded by beautiful women.

Instead, we 'cruits were taught that North Koreans and Chicoms were treacherous, the ceasefire wouldn't last, and we'd better pay attention to instructors because our next assignments probably would be the front line in Korea, with actual bullets whizzing through the air, and artillery shells exploding nearby.

Bayonet attacks had been fairly common in Korea. During bayonet practice, it occurred to me that physically stronger soldiers probably would prevail. Not very muscular myself, I concluded with dismay that I'd almost certainly get killed by a bayonet in the guts, instead of attending college.

During training I fired .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, threw live hand grenades, became semi-deafened occasionally by artillery blasts, followed huge, lumbering tanks into mock attacks, and crawled across the muddy infiltration course at night, live machine gun fire overhead. I learned that war was not at all glorious, but dirty, noisy, bloody, brutal and grotesque for frontline soldiers.

Sergeants thoroughly indoctrinated us in the combat mentality. Often I fantasized about killing people, or about me getting machine gunned, or blown to smithereens by an artillery shell. Soldiers were indoctrinated to follow orders instantly, without thinking. I fell in line like virtually all 'cruits, because hellhole stockades seemed far worse.

I'm convinced that the threat of harsh punishment actually deters crime, because it firmly controlled us young men pumped to our eyeballs with hormones, trained to excel in mayhem. I lived in fear of going to the stockade, where a newcomer would be warmly welcomed with a blanket party, in which a blanket would be thrown over him, and everybody beat and kicked the blanket, while guards looked the other way. I personally met soldiers who'd been in stockades and confirmed these practices.

After training I was assigned to the 53rd Infantry Regiment in Alaska. Around six months later, I got transferred to the 4th Engineers, who were combat engineers, constantly training to build and blow up bridges in hotspots, and laying and detecting minefields, often at night. The British call such soldiers sappers.

Soldiers in Alaska constantly were reminded forcefully that we sat only 20 minutes jet time from Siberia, therefore a Russian parachute division or two could drop on us at any moment, so we'd better stay ready to ride trucks into the tundra and fight.

Incessant frenzied preparation for imminent conflict produced lots of anxious young guys with rifles running about the landscape. I too became highly stressed, and one evening got involved in an argument with a soldier from Buffalo, New York, who was built like a buffalo, and getting on my nerves, leading to an actual fistfight in a quonset hut at Fort Richardson.

I landed the first hard punch, which rocked him on his heels. If I had possessed the true killer instinct, I would have zeroed in for the kill, but as half-baked intellectual, became amazed at the sight of him backpedaling, trying to clear his head. I thought: Wow - did I really hit him that hard?

As I marvelled at my own strength, the buffalo regained full consciousness and proceeded to knock me out, causing headaches for around a month.

During my three-year enlistment, I met many veterans of World War Two still on active duty. One of my sergeants had survived the Bataan Death March. After a few beers, or during chow while on maneuvers, sometimes old sergeants told stories. All were very tough guys. Many actually had killed people. I admired them greatly and still do.

After mustering out, I continued reading about war. When I became a novelist, naturally I wanted to write a war novel. My first was DOOM PLATOON by Richard Gallagher, published by Belmont-Tower, set during the Battle of the Bulge, which led to THE SERGEANT by Gordon Davis, six novels published by Zebra and Bantam, about a sergeant in the European Theater of Operations, based on memories of my former sergeants and of Walter Zacharius, President of Zebra, who'd been a sergeant himself and participated in the liberation of Paris.

After THE SERGEANT, I felt inspired to write THE RAT BASTARDS, which became a massive cauldron of jungle fighting, swamps, malaria, snakes and leeches, told from viewpoints of both American and Japanese soldiers and officers, including guest appearances by historical figures such as Major General Alexander Vandegrift and Lieutenant General Harakuchi Hyakatuke. I tried to be fair to all sides and true to history, while recognizing that history fundamentally is a succession of ironies and black comedies illustrating the laws of karma.

My editor was classy Damaris Rowland, only woman I ever met who truly understood male-oriented action-adventure fiction, perhaps because her father had been an officer on General George Patton's staff, and she grew up on army posts all over the world.

As I scan THE RAT BASTARDS now, the novels seem incredibly ferocious, gory and profane, but I persist in believing that's the truth of war for ordinary soldiers at the front. No matter how mild-mannered a soldier, regardless of background, he soon learns that he needs to become extremely vicious ASAP if he wants to remain alive. Nice guys cannot possibly survive hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, knives, axes, shovels, rocks, and anything else lying around.

Consequently, THE RAT BASTARDS continually presents blood, guts and curses flying through the air, along with occasional heads and other body parts, amidst deafening artillery explosions, and machine gun and small arms fire, and many Japanese night-time suicide attacks.

I never wanted to sanitize or glamorize war, but still believe that unheralded acts of heroism are common at the front, because soldiers tend to look out for each other. They also develop sardonic senses of humor, rather than go bonkers.

Sometimes G.I. Joes get wounded and land in hospitals, where they encounter women nurses who themselves are traumatized to varying degrees by never-ending streams of mutilated men. Close contact among lonely young guys and gals under pressure inevitably explodes into occasional fleeting, bittersweet romance amidst the horrors of war, probably better than no romance at all.

During World War Two, Americans didn't refer to the Japanese as the Japanese. We referred to them as Japs and hated them intensely for Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March, among other atrocities. Meanwhile, the Japanese considered Americans weaklings, cowards and fiends, while viewing themselves as honorable warriors in the service of their Emperor, whom they believed was an actual god.

For the sake of accuracy, wrathful attitudes are reproduced faithfully in THE RAT BASTARDS, which might jolt sensibilities of gentle souls who believe everyone should love everyone.

Be advised: these are not bedtime stories for little girls. They're rough and raw as the Pacific War itself, and represent my supreme effort as a World War II novelist. I received many fan letters, but paperback sales weren't exactly terrific, perhaps because no advertising or PR campaign at all.

I'm very grateful to Premier for republishing all 16 of THE RAT BASTARDS. I hope these novels will go viral and make me a millionaire, so I can relocate to Paris and date dancers from the Follies Bergere.

Individual titles:


According to original jacket copy:

Tanks can't stop them. Malaria only slows them down. The enemy fears them. Their own army hates them. A stockade can't keep them penned up. They steal, lie, kill, never respect the rules. On the battlefield, you'd better steer clear of ...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Where The Action Is (aka The All New Cherry Delight #4)

Where The Action Is, by Glen Chase
No month stated, 1977 Leisure Books

The vulgarities of this novel probably never will be matched in American Fiction. -- Leonard Levinson, in an interview with me in Paperback Fanatic #23

This is the first Cherry Delight novel I've read, and I only read it because Leonard Levinson wrote it. Cherry is a swinging, sexy spy, along the lines of the Baroness, but whereas that series plays it straight for the most part, Cherry Delight is a full-on satire/spoof/comedy. My understanding is that Gardner Fox created the character and wrote 24 novels as "Glen Chase," from 1972 through 1975. Leisure brought back the series as "The All New Cherry Delight" in 1977, publishing an additional (unnumbered) 5 volumes through 1978, keeping the Glen Chase house name. This was the only volume of the series Levinson wrote.

The All New series was different in that Cherry no longer just went up against rival spies; now she dealt in occult and horror-themed cases. Also, whereas in the original series she was an agent for NYMPHO, now she was an agent for DUE (Department of Unusual Events). It also seems that her original code name of "The Sexecutioner" was dropped as well. However the graphic sex was not dropped from the new series; again, like the Baroness, the Cherry Delight series was basically hardcore porn hiding in the guise of spy-fy. But whereas the Baroness was written in third-person (which I still found strange because it relayed the multiple sex scenes from the Baroness's point of view), the Cherry Delight novels are written in first-person, with Cherry relating her adventures, sexual and otherwise, directly to us.

Now, this I find really strange. I mean, we're talking here about a men's adventure series in which the protagonist tells us -- in great detail -- all about sucking on various parts of the male anatomy, screwing men, the works. But what do I know; there was a total of 29 books in this series, when you count both runs, so regardless it enjoyed an enduring popularity -- not to mention the outrageous prices some of these books currently go for. I have no idea how Fox handled the writing of the sex scenes in his installments, but Levinson does a great job, better even than Donald Moffitt in the Baroness books. Indeed, I enjoyed Where The Action Is more than the entirety of the Baroness series.

But again, the two series are wildly different, and Where The Action Is even differs from Levinson's other action series work. Despite being labeled and marketed as an "adventure" novel, Where The Action Is has more in common with The Last Buffoon than say Night of the Assassins. Levinson goes into detail about the writing of this novel in the above-mentioned interview, but long story short he was offered the job by editor Peter McCurtin, who showed him the already-completed cover photo, of a sexy gal in a silver jumpsuit posing on a gambling table. Fueled by "coffee and amphetimines," Levinson turned out his manuscript in a whopping six days.

Cherry's narrative voice is very similar to Alexander Frapkin's in The Last Buffoon: the same cynical sense of humor mixed with a wide-eyed joy for life. You have to consider Where The Action Is as a comedy, because it fails as an "action" novel...which, again, is something it was never intended to be. Cherry is of course an ass-kicking spy with an incredible body, a gorgeous face, and glorious red hair, but in Levinson's hands she's also a lovelorn, hopeless romantic who is given to philosophical introspection. There's only one action scene in the entire book, with Cherry decimating a crew of mobsters as she speeds along in her Ferrari; even the finale is short on action, literally just Cherry sitting down to talk with the villain of the piece.

Anyway, the plot centers around an Aleister Crowley-type magician named Sergei Gubishov, who is taking over Vegas. Using his mental powers he's able to win every game in town, and he's bankrupting the casinos. The mobsters who run the place have tried to kill him, but have failed each time. (We're told one of the hitmen dropped dead after Gubishov merely looked at him.) Cherry's called in by her DUE boss, Derek, and told that if Vegas goes under the entire US economy will topple. Her task is to head to Vegas and kill Gubishov.

Levinson jumps straight into the sex, as Cherry is seduced by her "Southern gentleman" pilot on the flight to Vegas. Cherry has a notoriety for being promiscuous, something that apparently everyone knows, even the pilot...not to mention her boss, who browbeats Cherry over her wanton nature throughout the novel. Cherry stays in a hotel run by Angelo, the boss of the Vegas mobsters-cum-casino owners, and Levinson develops a long-simmer, unrequited love between the two, with constant bickering and banter. The other mobsters aren't too thrilled that for help they've been sent a "broad," but Cherry of course kicks a little mobster ass and they shut up.

Gubishov has a mental hold on people, including Donna, an 18 year-old horny beauty whom Gubishov stole away from her husband on their honeymoon. (Cherry later gets hold of Donna's bereaved groom and evens the sexual score.) Gubishov uses this occult mind power to control the various Vegas games; he has no other intentions than to become wealthy. Ie, no plans of world conquest or anything like that. Levinson switches up the expected confrontation, though; Cherry, upon meeting Gubishov face to face, takes one look at the guy and passes out.

This leads to a long backstory in which we learn that Gubishov, about 15 years before, was the man who took Cherry's virginity (or, as she puts it several times: "The man who took Cherry's cherry."). Going under a different name at the time, Gubishov was part of a carnival that came to the teenaged Cherry's hometown all those years ago. After picking Cherry out of the audience to be his partner in the act, Gubishov invited Cherry back to his trailer, where Gubishov revealed that they had been lovers in the past. Graphic sex ensued, with Cherry falling in love with Gubishov, who nonetheless told her that they could never be together, not until she was older.

Back to the present day, where Cherry reveals that she's never gotten over Gubishov and still loves him. Thus, she cannot kill him as ordered. You can already tell this novel's not going the expected route, and Levinson recently mentioned in an email to me that Where The Action Is was "probably the strangest novel I ever wrote." Rather than going up against the villain, Cherry instead tells him that she's still in love with him, could never kill him, and will always love the man who took her virginity.

What's weird is that I kept expecting some curveball to come along, but really that's all there is to it -- when Gubishov learns that his Vegas-wrecking will eventually destroy the entire economy, he decides to just back down! Cherry's suggestion is that he be given one of the hotels, from which he'll make more than enough money to allow him to live in luxury for the rest of his life. Gubishov is amenable to this, and on her way back to the Strip Cherry's attacked by those aforementioned goons, sent there by a mobster she pissed off.

After this one action scene we have another where Cherry kills the mobster himself with a laser penlight. As luck would have it, this mobster was the owner of the casino Gubishov wants to take over. After a meeting with the other mobsters, it's agreed that Gubishov can have the casino, and that takes care of that! The plot of the novel is over, but there's still a quarter of a way to go. When the curveball we've been expecting finally arrives, it comes not through some chicanery on Gubishov's part, but Levinson's; he instead plays up on the foreshadowing throughout the novel, that Cherry is lovelorn and has indeed fallen in with the young mob boss, Angelo.

So we have what started off as an action book that has become more about a crestfallen Cherry Delight, who realizes she will never know true love. She drives back to New York, depressed, and Levinson ends the tale by jumping ahead a year, where Cherry and Angelo finally meet again in Italy. The book actually reads like the first (and only) adventure of Cherry Delight, given that Levinson delves into her teenage years, has her reflecting back on her life, and provides a definite end -- in other words, it's not the open ending one would expect of series fiction. But again, given that this was Levinson's one and only Cherry Delight novel, this is understandable.

And as stated, the book is funny, though occasionally can get a little goofy (no doubt those amphetimines kicking in). The sex scenes are frequent and quite graphic, in particular the sequence where Cherry takes the virginity of Donna's forlorn husband.

Really though, at 176 pages of big print, Where The Action Is comes off more like a novella, a breezy read that I finished before I knew it; which, again, is how I think these men's adventure novels should be written. The longer they are, the more prone they are to becoming padded and tiresome. Levinson keeps things moving at a steady, fun clip, but be warned again that this novel is more of a satire and comedy than a Baroness-type action novel.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Marc Olden's Black Samurai and Narc in Ebook format!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the biggest fan of Ebooks. But one thing that’s great about the world of Epublishing is that it can bring back forgotten fiction. Such is the case with Marc Olden, easily one of the best writers to ever work in the men’s adventure field.

Mysterious Press has recently released Olden's work in Ebook format, including his awesome series titles Narc and Black Samurai.

The latter alone is cause for celebration, as the price of Black Samurai novels has been so inflated by online booksellers that the series has almost become too expensive to read. Well, now the joke is on those sellers, because you can get each book in the series (as well as the Narc books and the Harker Files series, which I haven’t read) for about $8 each -– pretty cheap when you consider how much the original printings go for.

I often get emails from readers who complain that they can’t find many of the books I review. So, here is a case where one can easily get a copy of these books...and, having read a handful of Olden’s novels, I can assure you they will be solid purchases.

Here’s the complete line of Olden’s Ebooks on Amazon.

Really, it’s great to see this, and a huge thanks to Mysterious Press and Diane Crafford for making it possible.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ryker #2: The Hammer of God

Ryker #2: The Hammer of God, by Nelson DeMille
October, 1974 Leisure Books

I've been intrigued with this 8-volume* series for a while, but a few factors have prevented me from seeking it out. For one, these books aren't cheap. No doubt due to Nelson DeMille's mainstream popularity, the Ryker books are atrociously overpriced (and don't even get me started on his Keller series, published by Manor -- or the 1990 Pocket reprints which were published under the psuedonym Jack Cannon!). Also, both Marty McKee and Justin Marriott (in the first issue of his Men Of Violence magazine) have gone on the record that these books aren't always up to snuff, so to speak, with bad writing and a general lack of action.

But when I read about the lurid plot of The Hammer of God I basically just had to get a copy of the book. Luckily I was able to find one at an acceptable price; it was still overpriced, but at least it was well below the $20-$80 some online bookseller assholes list it for. This installment taps right into the occult craze of the early '70s, with a psycho who goes around the seedy streets of New York City, killing women whom he believes to be witches. Also worth noting is that, despite being published in late 1974, The Hammer of God actually takes place from late 1969 on into the spring of 1970.

Also worth noting is the psycho actually refers to himself as "God's Avenger," not "the Hammer of God." Only a few portions of the narrative are from his perspective, but we learn that he was some anonymous farmhand who was visited by "God" one day, who basically told him to go to New York City and start killing witches. Now calling himself "Zachariah," the psycho lives in a spartan apartment in the city, where he meditates all day, living solely off of wine and cheese. He only comes out every few months, for the seasonal "Sabat" festivals of the witches; his first murder occurs shortly before Christmas.

Attending a low-rent performance of Hamlet, Zachariah picks the prettiest of the three witches and follows the actress home, where he tells her she is possessed, then proceeds to strangle her, finishing off his divine task by putting a stake through her heart. Ryker, a tough cop with twenty years experience on the force, works the area in which the murder took place (the Upper West Side and Times Square), so this is how he is brought into the tale.

Joe Ryker is one hell of a character, to say the least. Racist, misogynist, homophobic, sadistic, chavaunist, you name it. In other words, he's a complete dick, fighting with everyone and anyone. This is often stated in reviews of the series, but one thing worth noting is that nowhere does DeMille imply that Ryker is a hero. In fact every other character is generally shocked by his words and actions, and no one seems to like him. Not only that, but his muleheaded ideas, which Ryker is positive are the only ones worth trying, usually backfire, most of the time resulting in the death or at least the harm of his fellow cops. In my opinion DeMille here has created an anti-hero in the truest sense, an antogonist who serves as the protagonist.

Ryker's partner gets more narrative time, and emerges as the true hero of the piece. This is Peter Christie, a new detective on the force, one who still only has a silver badge. One of the themes of the novel is Ryker's corruption of Christie. When we meet him, Christie is just a regular guy, terrified of the crime and corruption in New York City, determined to one day escape the hellhole and move somewhere far, far away. He looks to Ryker mostly with anxiety but also a dash of respect; Ryker's known to be an asshole, but he gets results. Pretty soon though Christie is pulling actions that please even Ryker; in one laugh-out-loud moment, Christie, while interrogating some young (and black) suspects, asks himself, "What would Ryker do?", and immediately kicks one of the kids in the balls.

Ryker and Christie canvas the squalid areas of New York City, searching for Zachariah, who we know can't be found because he never leaves his apartment. After a second murder in which Zachariah kills another Hamlet actress -- this one a real-life practicing witch -- Ryker concocts a variety of schemes. A large portion of The Hammer of God is given over to dialog, of Ryker brainstorming ideas (and then bullying anyone who disagrees), either with Christie or with the rest of the precinct. (And of course true to the genre there's a "stupid chief" who is always stonewalling Ryker, but of course eventually backs down.)

But as Justin pointed out in his Men Of Violence piece, there's scarce action here. No shootouts, no chases, not even any fistfights. And yet for all that, the novel moves at a brisk pace. DeMille does a great job bringing his characters to life, and he really brings to life the streets of New York. Marty McKee mentioned in his reviews of these books that the Ryker novels came off as rushed and sloppy, but I didn't get that here, so maybe DeMille had more time to craft this particular installment. Again, though, it lacks action and thrills.

However it makes up for it with some of the most outrageous dark comedy I've ever had the joy to read. Where to start? How about the scene where Ryker, getting surly after a full day of questioning various witnesses, starts to hassle an old "fruitcake" and his young boyfriend, baiting them with degrading taunts? Then, realizing that the kid has the hots for him, Ryker actually takes the kid back to the crime scene and pretends that he too is interested -- all because Ryker detects that the kid has extra info which he's afraid to give out in the presence of his boyfriend. The kid strips for Ryker (who remains clothed)...and once Ryker gets the info he needs, he beats the shit out of the kid.

There are many other similar instances. One of Ryker's brilliant schemes is to infiltrate Christie into the underworld of witches; through sheer deus ex machina it turns out that the precinct's medical examiner, Dr. Morloch (!) is himself a full-fledged warlock (not to mention gay -- more opportunity for Ryker's barbs), so the good doctor provides the training. But wait, Ryker's heard orgies go down at these witch meetings, so they need a female detective...Ryker wants the gorgeous Abigail "Abbie" Robbins to take the job, a headstrong gal who turns heads, lives the high life in Manhattan, and doesn't put up with Ryker's shit. The arguing between Abbie and Ryker is one of the highlights of the book, and the dialog DeMille gives Abbie is further indication that he himself doesn't think too highly of Ryker.

DeMille works in a lot of information about witches and cults, playing up the more lurid aspects. He downplays the actual sleaze, though; for a novel so concerned with orgies and whatnot, The Hammer of God doesn't feature much sex or graphic nature. As part of their prep work for going undercover as witches-to-be, Christie and Abbie sleep together, but DeMille skips the details and instead plays up the ensuing spat, with Christie getting jealous not only of the attention Abbie gets at the cult meetings, but also the fact that she appears to enjoy the attention.

As mentioned, most of the novel is comprised of Ryker always being a step behind Zachariah, and then Ryker's ensuing plans to catch the bastard. The final quarter of the novel is the best, as all of Ryker's plans have centered on getting Zachariah to attend a black mass either at Dr. Morloch's swank apartment in the upper 60s or one which will be held among a less-privileged cult in the East Village -- one that takes place in a closed-down church, to boot. Any idiot could tell you that Zachariah, since he has to choose (both masses take place on the same night), would go with the one in the former church, so I never could figure out why Ryker even bothered planning something at Morloch's.

But again, this is just another instance of Ryker's plan either going wrong or causing grief -- for everyone except Ryker, that is. The last half of the novel is almost fully given over to Christie, with Ryker a supporting character. The black mass sequence pulls out all the stops, with the ensuing orgy light on the explicit nature but still pretty lurid, DeMille again playing up on Christie's homophobia (no doubt picked up from Ryker); all along Christie's been afraid that a gay cult-member might pull a move on him at the orgy, because Christie's heard that anything can happen during them.

When Zachariah finally arrives DeMille delivers a harrowing, violent scene that expands upon all of the twisted stuff that came before. Meanwhile Ryker's still not around. Christie is on the scene, but he's messed up from the heavy dope smoked at the black mass, not to mention the orgy that's raging around him -- Abbie meanwhile having given herself over to another couple. This entire section is pretty disturbed, with lots of hippies getting gutted, beheaded, and cleaved. So many in fact that by the time Ryker arrives with his .357 you get the feeling he needn't have bothered.

I enjoyed this novel enough to track down a few more titles in the series, but unfortunately none of them by DeMille. (I did luck out the other month though and scored a copy of the 1990 reprint of his Keller novel, The Smack Man, which as mentioned below is basically just a Ryker novel, only with Ryker's name changed.) This is the first DeMille novel I've read, and I have to say, I enjoyed it. While The Hammer of God was lacking a bit in the action department, and certainly could've been a bit more lurid, DeMille really made up for it with his gift for bringing to life the squalor of 1970s New York City, combined with a strong cast of characters who deliver some humorous and memorable dialog.

*The Ryker series has a confounding publication history. The series ran from 1974 to 1976, with the first four volumes published in 1974. DeMille wrote volumes one and two, The Sniper and The Hammer of God. My man Leonard Levinson wrote the third volume, The Terrorists, even though it was still credited to DeMille, who himself returned for the fourth volume, The Agent of Death. After which DeMille jumped ship, going over to Manor Books, where he changed Ryker's name to "Keller," and continued writing the series under this new title for another four volumes. Meanwhile Ryker continued at Leisure; the fifth volume, The Child Killer (1975), was published under the name Edson T. Hamill, likely a psuedonym -- and likely one chosen because it sounds a little like "Nelson DeMille." The Hamill name remained for the duration of the Ryker books, however The Child Killer was the last numbered volume. The sixth installment was The Sadist (1975), which was also the last to feature a painted cover. The final two volumes, Motive For Murder (1975) and The Slasher (1976), featured photo covers.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Baroness #8: Black Gold

The Baroness #8: Black Gold, by Paul Kenyon
February, 1975 Pocket Books

Here endeth the sex-filled saga of the Baroness, in what by far is the rarest and most overpriced volume of the series. I wish I could say that Black Gold ends the series with a bang, but this turned out to be the worst entry of all: underwhelming, tepid, and boring, even worse than #2: Diamonds Are For Dying. In other words, it's not worth the inflated price online booksellers list it for.

The biggest problem with Black Gold is the lack of action, or even interest; hardly anything happens throughout the novel. Instead the reader must endure endless pages which describe oil carriers and oil rigs, not to mention pages and pages and pages of "Scottish" dialog ("I dinna hae the key!" and so forth), as if some faux-Irvine Welsh has taken over the series. It's really an uphill battle getting through all of this, and I suspect Paul Kenyon (aka Donald Moffitt) was losing his interest in the series.

As usual though the threat is a good one: a terrorist group calling itself SPOILER has unleashed an experimental chemical which destroys oil. Each of these books always opens with a scene in which we witness the devastation wrought by the latest threat, and in these parts Moffitt always shines (though not a single one of them has topped the opening of #1: The Ecstasy Connection, which featured people around the world dying of orgasms). Here we see parts of Europe collapsing as oil-powered vehicles just stop working, thus rendering entire armies impotent. SPOILER threatens more attacks if their demands aren't met: they want half of various oil company profits.

Enter the Baroness, who is in England, where she's doing a series of cosmetic ads for the AngelFace line. As coincidence would have it, the Baroness's latest flame is a rakish Englishman named Tony Cavendish who runs an oil business. Tony's about to head over to Scotland where he will stay in the castle of Lord Angus Bane, who happens to have won the Nobel Prize for his research into chemicals and oil and etc. The reader can already see where this is going, and indeed after a lot of page-filler where the Baroness and her vast team tracks various suspects, the Baroness settles on Bane as being a likely culprit behind SPOILER.

Here the rot sets in. Moffit brings the novel to a standstill with endless scenes of characters who speak in "Scottish" dialog, while nothing else of much importance takes place. The Baroness meanwhile researches, keeping in touch via the usual spy-fy means with her team, most of whom are themselves in Scotland. She also learns more about the mysterious Lord Bane, who is rarely seen on his estate and who allows a group of equally-mysterious Germans to stay there, ostensibly because they go hunting on his grounds. There's also reports of a local sea monster, the "Crombie beastie," as well as a Japanese team of scientists who are trying to capture it.

But honestly, nothing happens. It's just wheel-spinning of the worst sort. The Baroness even suspects her boyfriend Tony, due to his affiliation with those mysterious Germans, not that it stops her from the occasional uber-graphic sex scene with him. Things don't even pick up after an attempt is made on the Baroness's life while she's out driving Tony's car for a look at the "beastie;" surviving a major crash after her car is squirted with that oil-eating chemical, she tapes up her bruises and just continues to snoop around.

Gradually Moffitt brings the series back to the form we expect from previous volumes, but even then it's too little, too late. There's a nice part where the Baroness thinks she's found the castle's legendary ghost, only to discover it's one of Bane's men, who slinks around in between the chambers to snoop; the Baroness breaks his neck and sends the corpse off into the sea via a bra that turns into a balloon(!). Another good sequence has the Baroness and her teammate Fiona watch as the "Crombie beastie," which turns out to be an experimental sub, attacks that Japanese crew; a team of frogmen emerge from the sub, gleefully killing the scientists one by one.

At length the Baroness catches up with the reader and knows that Bane is behind SPOILER. But before that we have to endure more boring stuff, like an overlong sequence where the ever-arrogant Baroness challenges Bane in the annual Highland Games, calling in big Joe Skytop to out-toss some Bane employee in the treetrunk toss, and Tom Sumo to outfight Bane's top swordsman in a sword fight. It's so boring, mostly because you know the Baroness's team is going to be victorious, yet Moffitt blithely writes on for pages and pages, documenting each tree-toss and sword stroke, until the matches finally end...just as you knew they would, with the Baroness's team victorious.

This leads into a mini-"Most Dangerous Game" sequence where the Baroness is hunted by those Germans; there's some dark comedy at work, here, as the Germans keep trying to "accidentally" kill the Baroness before finally dropping all pretense and coming after her. Of course, the Baroness makes short work of them and escapes. This in itself is one of the highlights of the novel, with the Baroness inflating a life-size balloon replica of herself as a decoy! Nevertheless she's captured as is expected, only to awaken and find herself nude to the waist, hanging upside down over a pot of boiling oil.

Part of the Bane clan's ancient notoriety was the boiling of their enemies, and since she's pissed them off so righteously they're going to boil the Baroness the slow way. Thanks though to her nifty plastic spy-fy belt, which turns into a sword when heated, she's able to cut her way out and then hack up the torturer. Here follows another of those series trademarks where the Baroness, nude and covered in oil, waltzes through the castle and hacks people apart.

One scene that had me scratching my head was her swordfight with that aforementioned swordsmaster; somehow the Baroness is able to cut him in half, from groin to breastbone, and it just doesn't seem possible the way Moffitt describes it (he has her slicing up with the sword "like a golf club" into her opponent, who is sitting down at the time). But then, after we just saw our heroine escape a boiling cauldron with her belt-cum-sword, I guess reality has little import.

Meanwhile the Baroness's team is raising hell in Bane's castle, and here we have actual action series stuff, with gunfights and explosions. But the finale itself is rushed, which makes you wonder about all of that page-filling banality that came before; Bane escapes in his sub, and the Baroness and Tony fly out in a helicopter to Tony's oil rig to intercept it. It all leads to the Baroness, in a wetsuit, swimming down to some impossible depth so she can plant a bomb on the sub, thus destroying it and the last of Bane's oil-eating virus.

It's all over in about three pages, and just leaves the reader unsatisfied. If more time had been spent on the finale (or at least the action), and less on the wheel-spinning, then Black Gold would have made for a much better read. But then, even the villains this time are a step down; Bane is downright boring, not nearly as colorful or bizarre as some of the previous villains. Again, it all reeks of an author either bored with his series or just rushing to meet a deadline.

Honestly, the cult fame of this series baffles me. Having read every volume, I wouldn't even place the Baroness in my top ten of favorite men's adventure series, let alone top five. There are so many other series more deserving of a cult following, like John Eagle Expeditor, TNT, Phoenix, and especially Doomsday Warrior. But then, I get the feeling that a lot of the fans of this series haven't actually read any of the novels; they just like the idea of it.

From the Baroness Yahoo Group we know that Donald Moffitt became ill shortly after turning in Black Gold, and so was unable to write for a while. By the time he came back, with two written manuscripts ready to go, series owner Lyle Kenyon Engel told him that publisher Pocket Books was no longer interested. I think Black Gold offers a little indication why; it's no surprise that sales weren't good enough to continue publishing the series. What's sad though is that the Baroness started off so great with The Ecstasy Connection; such a shame, then, that it ended so ignobly.

As mentioned there were a few more novels written for this series, but never published; I'll focus on them in my next Baroness post.