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.


Tom Johnson said...

The Baroness never did hold any interest for me. I had to try the series, however, and did read two or three, but quickly traded them off for something better. I thought at the time I read them that they were trying to create their version of Modesty Blaze, but they missed by a mile. I'm currently reading John Eagle #1, my first encounter with this series. Much better than The Baroness.

Joe Kenney said...

Tom, thanks for the comment. And glad to hear you are enjoying the first John Eagle. As I've written in my other reviews, the Expeditor and Baroness series are very similar (no doubt due to Lyle Kenyon Engle's influence), but I enjoy the Expeditor books a lot more.

Darrel Christenson said...

Any chance of a downloadable copy somewhere?

drc :)