Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Enforcer #6: Steel Trap

The Enforcer #6: Steel Trap, by Andrew Sugar
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

It’s not numbered, but this was the sixth volume of the Enforcer series, taking place a few months after the preceding volume, Bio Blitz. Ironically enough, just as Bio Blitz harkened back in some ways to Enforcer #1, Steel Trap harkens back to #2: Calling Doctor Kill. It follows the same template, with our cloned hero Alex Jason once again venturing into a high-security location, pretending to be someone he’s not. And like that second volume, Steel Trap starts off strong but gets lost toward the end, delivering an anticlimatic finale that seems dashed off.

Overall the novel is much better than Calling Doctor Kill, though, and Andrew Sugar’s writing is up to its usual level. I still say this guy was one of the unsung masters of the men’s adventure genre, and one of these days I intend to re-read the Enforcer series in full – I like it that much. Also, after the stagebound affairs of the middle books in the series, Sugar has better figured out how to meld action scenes with introspection-heavy sequences; it’s not up to par with Bio Blitz, but Steel Trap does offer some nice and violent set pieces amid the philosophizing and ruminating.

As seen in the previous volume, Lochner, Jason’s arch rival and nemesis of the John Anryn Institute, has been killed (by Jason’s “fat” boss, Flack, no less). You’d think Sugar would open it up and introduce some other villain, but no; Jason and his fellows are still dealing with the remnants of Lochner’s syndicate. It seems that many of them are unaware that Lochner’s dead, and so the Institute is keeping it a secret so as to lure some of the syndicate bosses out into the open.

One of them turns out to be a guy named Spevic, who was in an experimental prison in California, a place nicknamed San Angie. Spevic was tossed out of a top floor before he could deliver evidence on who among Lochner’s successors was next in line to run the syndicate. He’s contacted the Institute and, in exchange for a healthy clone body, the now-paralyzed Spevic will tell “Big John” (as the Institute is called) everything he knows.

This develops into the first of a few gory action scenes, this volume being the most violent I believe since Enforcer #1. Jason and a few redshirt clones sit in a van and wait to ambush Spevic’s police caravan as he’s driven through the desert, on his way to a hospital – Flack’s nephew Hamilton, a fellow Institute employee who works as the doctor in San Angie, is on board and the key to Jason's plan. But Jason and his crew are themselves ambushed, by a helicopter filled with mercenaries bearing M-16s. (Sugar never really explains who these guys are, or who sent them.) But here we have heads exploding and Jason blowing off arms and legs with his handy laser pistol.

When Spevic ends up a casualty of the ambush, Jason goes back to square one. Back at the Institute HQ in New York, he continues to brainstorm with Flack, Hamilton, and Institute head scientest Rosegold – that is, when he isn’t having a drink or a smoke or sex with his girlfriend Samantha. Sam as you’ll recall was introduced in the previous volume, and again she doesn’t bring much to the tale, quickly shunted off to New Mexico for some project for Rosegold.

Sam though is similar to Brunnie, Jason’s girlfriend from way back in the first volume – like Brunnie, Sam is a clone, and also a decade or so older than Jason himself, even though they both live in eternally-young clone bodies. Steel Trap in fact opens with a good scene between these two, with Sam taking Jason to “Club Nostalgia,” a 1940s-themed bar which brings back memories for Sam; after which they go park in Jason’s car for some 1950s-style backseat shenanigans. (Sugar also sets a precedent for the number of times an author can mention a female character’s breasts; he nearly runs out of adjectives describing Sam’s, which apparently must be friggin’ stupendous on her current body.)

Sugar plays up a new development here, one that I assume would have had repercussions in ensuing volumes; Flack keeps hassling Jason that he’s an “executive,” not an enforcer, and that Jason should not be going out on anymore field assignments. (I guess Flack doesn’t realize the series is entitled The Enforcer.) Apparently this was something Flack specified back when he offered Jason his new lease on life in the first volume, but I missed it, or have forgotten about it. But anyway, Flack keeps bullying Jason that Jason needs to find other enforcers to go out on the field and handle action items, such as this new plan of Jason’s to send an enforcer into San Angie to root out the Lochner-successor Spevic claimed was there with his dying breath.

Jason has to prove himself the only clone fit for the job, passing an ESP test devised by Rosegold. This placates Flack, but the threat is left that Jason will have to come up with reasons to be an enforcer in future volumes. Sam too is suffering the same problem, and she and Jason make a pact to help each other out, as Sam herself is an action junkie and doesn’t want to be desk-bound. Whether Sugar intended to follow this through in future volumes is a mystery, as sadly Steel Trap was the final installment of the series.

Given a muscle-bound new body which is almost identical to a prisoner who is about to be transferred to San Angie, Jason studies the convict he is supposed to be impersonating and dreams up another scenario to sneak into the prison. This turns out to be almost identical to the previous job; once again Jason and some redshirt enforcers hide out in the desert and ambush a police caravan! This time there’s no helicopter ambush, and Jason is able to switch out the man he’s impersonating.

I’m not a fan of prison fiction, so I wasn’t really thrilled about Steel Trap’s plot. Luckily Sugar doesn't get to the prison stuff until over halfway through the novel, and it only takes up maybe a quarter of the narrative. Only problem is, the book kind of stops dead once Jason is in the prison. As in the middle volumes of the series, the novel becomes a stagebound mystery-thriller with Jason deducing and brainstorming, and forward momentum is lost. Also, once again like in Calling Doctor Kill, there’s lots of incidental subplots that have no bearing on the story and just come off like padding.

Spevic’s dying words were “Big Al,” so Jason ponders this while trying to navigate the brutal world of prison. Not that he has much trouble; by the end of his first day he’s already “the boss of the whites.” Racial disharmony is of course prevalent at San Angie, and Sugar as expected immediately has Jason stirring things up. (Another flashback to Calling Doctor Kill, where Jason again had no problem with baiting a black character.) Meanwhile he will go off to the medical ward, where he has meetings with Hamilton. It was all sort of like a weird prefigure of that show PrisonBreak.

After a lot of red herrings and page-fillers, Jason finally deduces who “Big Al” is in a move that strikes of the utter bullshit we saw back in #4: Kill Deadline. Big Al’s identity is a total cop-out on Sugar’s part; turns out the man himself is a schizophrenic, so that Jason, while using his ESP powers, was unable to pick up Big Al’s thoughts, because the man himself didn’t even know he was Big Al at the time! Like I said, utter bullshit. But still, the way Sugar unveils it, trying to make his goofy plotting seem realistic, is a wonder to behold.

The finale is rushed and anticlimatic, again like the second volume, with Jason deducing Big Al’s identity and fostering a prison riot – one Sugar doesn’t even bother describing. In fact Jason breaks out of San Angie immediately thereafter, thanks to a helicopter of his own, and next thing you know he’s chasing Big Al across the pitch-black desert outside, Jason tracking Big Al via infrared pellets he’s eaten – another Big John invention, but one which will render Jason permanently blind if he sees any bright lights. (True to form for the series, Steel Trap begins at the end, with a blind and gunshot Jason lying in a ditch and wondering if Big Al is about to finish him off, before flashing back to the preceding events.)

It’s interesting to note that the novel is set in 1973, something mentioned both in the narrative and the dialog. My assumption is that Sugar must’ve written these six volumes all in that year, but Bio Blitz and Steel Trap just went unpublished until 1975. In other words, these two were not just “new” installments written for Manor Books. I’m curious though why Sugar did not write new volumes. Maybe by then he’d moved on to the Israeli Commandos series, which was a Manor original…maybe he’d just lost interest in the Enforcer.

So while it isn’t the strongest finale for the series, Steel Trap still has its moments. The gore factor is a little stronger, as mentioned; though there aren’t many action scenes, Sugar really plays up the carnage when they occur. However the “art of being a guy” stuff is toned down, with the rampant smoking and drinking of previous books a bit in the background – well, maybe not the smoking. Jason still smokes like a chimney here. But despite the anticlimatic end and the cop-out reveal of who Big Al is, the book is still enjoyable, even if it does lack the weird flourishes of Enforcer #1 and Bio Blitz.

Well, as another long review will attest, I really love the Enforcer series. It’s one of my very favorites, maybe even my top favorite. I’ll miss it. I like to imagine though that maybe Alex Jason is still out there, hanging out in Big John HQ and smoking and drinking his brandy, philosophizing with Flack and Rosegold and Sam, a-and maybe even new Institute clone members Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna…now that would be a series!


Anonymous said...

Okay, this Israeli Commandos series sounds like something you have to cover.

Joe Kenney said...

It will be -- I picked up the series some time ago but have been waiting until I finished the Enforcer before I started reading it. Thanks for the comment!