Monday, January 14, 2013

SOBs #6: Red Hammer Down

SOBs #6: Red Hammer Down, by Jack Hild
May, 1985  Gold Eagle Books

Back in the mid-‘80s I subscribed to Gold Eagle books, and every other month I’d receive a package with the latest shipment of books. The SOBs series was one of those books; I’m not sure which volume I came in on, or how many of them I eventually collected, but I know I never read any of them. They sure looked good lined up on my bookshelf, though.

Anyway, “SOBs” stands for “Soldiers of Barrabas,” so named after their leader, Colonel Nile Barrabas, a white-haired ‘Nam vet who now commands this squad of mercenaries. As a kid I was more into the Gold Eagle exploits of Phoenix Force and Able Team, that whole Stony Man shared world, and it seemed clear that SOBs either took place in the “real world” or was at least unconnected to those more-popular GE offerings. Looking at the series now, though, it seems that SOBs might be the gem of the bunch.

Unlike the other Gold Eagle series, which were penned by an army of ghostwriters, SOBs was written by a small group of authors (under the house name "Jack Hild"), which must’ve made for a tighter sense of continuity. Also, the series was unique in that members of the team would die, so it wasn’t like Able Team where you knew that, no matter how bad this month’s threat was, the three team members would survive to fight another day.

This installment is considered one of the best of the series; I’m not sure if it’s one I had as a kid, but I have Mike Madonna to thank for sending me this copy. (And for that matter, I wonder if all of my old Gold Eagle books are sitting in a box somewhere in my mom’s house??) This one was written by Alan Philipson, a house writer who was cranking out books for Gold Eagle all the way up to 2008, but if his website is any indication he’s recently retired from the pulp biz.

Philipson’s writing is strong. The characterization, dialog, and plotting are all excellent in Red Hammer Down, above and beyond what one would expect from just another entry in a bimonthly action series. Unfortunately it picks up right after the previous volume, #5: Gulag War, also penned by Philipson, which apparently saw the SOBs break some scientist out of a Siberian prison, embarrasing the elite Soviet commando force Spetsnaz in the process. Now Spetsnaz wants revenge.

In particular, Captain Baladin of the Spetsnaz wants revenge – turns out he was castrated by Dr. Lee, the female member of the SOBs, in the previous volume, and now he burns with the desire to torture her to death. Balandin has an ace in the hole for his vengeance quest: Billy Two, captured American-Indian SOB. Baladin has stashed Billy in Moscow for the past month, torturing and drugging him. The rest of the SOBs think Billy died during the battle in the preceding volume, and Baladin plans to use him as bait.

Billy Two is easily the highlight here, and it’s my understanding that this volume saw a huge change in the character. Red Hammer Down opens and closes from Billy’s viewpoint (Philipson is so good he doesn’t even POV-hop!!), and having undergone heavy drug torture for the past month he’s now a bit skewed. The novel veers into the metaphysical right from the start as Billy astrally leaves his body and meets the Animal Spirit, symbol of his forefather, who tells Billy that he will emerge from this torture changed forever, but most certainly stronger.

Baladin sends out a few hit squads and Philipson delivers some fun sequences of the various SOBs tackling them. Most memorably is when Nanos “The Greek,” a muscle-bound member of the team, is hit on by a female weight-lifter in the gym; during some impromptu sex in the gym sauna she tries to kill him, like something out of an X-rated Bond flick. Philipson also has fun with the character Liam O’Toole, a SOB who has designs to become a published poet, but is told by his agent that he should sell out and work on greeting cards – surely a bit of personal commentary from Philipson.

But really the majority of the narrative deals with the Spetsnaz assault on SOB headquarters on the isle of Majorca. Here the team maintains an ancient fortress, surrounded by impenetrable forest; Barrabas is certain even the crackest squad of Spetsnaz commandos would have a hell of a time getting through it to them. So after learning of the various hit squad attacks, Barrabas orders the team to convene in Majorca, where they will make their final stand against Spetsnaz.

Over half of the novel deals with the climatic assault on Majorca. It’s almost like a piece of war fiction as the SOBs hole up from various positions of defense and repel the Spetsnaz invaders. It’s all taut and well done, with a very good “action movie” type of feel, especially when you have Billy Two (who frees himself in quite a novel and memorable way) running around and killing Russians, naked and ravaged by psychotropic drugs, a machine pistol in each fist. That is, when he isn’t talking to cockroaches who speak in the voice of Animal Spirit.

True to what I’ve read, the team suffers here; one of them dies in the assault, but of course it’s the one who is given the least amount of narrative time and has I think only one or two lines of dialog. The assault gets a bit tiresome after a while, as all plot and character development just stalls into an endless sequence of battles. What’s most frustrating is there’s no resolution – Baladin simply leaves after the SOBs fool him into thinking they’ve committed suicide with the destruction of their own fortress.

But overall I really liked Red Hammer Down, despite not having read the previous volume. Philipson’s writing is great and the characters are interesting enough that I’d like to read more about them, in particular Billy Two, who emerges here as a very memorable character…I gather future volumes play out more on his metaphysical bent, so that's something to look forward to. I say this because I recently picked up the entire SOBs series at a very nice price, so it should make for some enjoyable reading.


AndyDecker said...

Philipson is a very good writer, his website has some interesting tidbits about this part of the industry. He also wrote a very good Mack Bolan Trilogie.

SOBs is one of the rare clever titles in the biz. I also got it as part of the package and only got to really appreciate it later. Mostly better done then a lot of other mercenary series. But the covers were terrible.

Anonymous said...

I read these books when I was a teenager-about 15, 16 years old and I learned geography from them. I also learned a lot about terrorist groups. Many of the scenes in these books and the battles the men fight are all happening today. Really, these terrorist acts have been around since the 1970's and the methods havent changed much. I loved the characters, the battles, the weapons, and I did like the covers. I agree that these are the best stories. Able and Phoenix and all were okay, but the SOB's read better.

Applebetty said...

I just started reading this one and I'm loving the hell out of Billy Two's misadventures and the characterization of the castrated Spetsnaz commander. This is easily my favorite men's adventure series to date.