Monday, February 11, 2013

Springblade #1

Springblade #1, by Greg Walker
October, 1989  Charter Books

This was the start of a 9-volume series detailing the black ops missions of Bo Thornton, a Vietnam badass who now heads a small team of “techno-commandos” who are hired out to the US government to do the dirty work. Series creator and author Greg Walker is a real person (ie, it’s not a house name); he himself has a special forces background, and has also published a few books on knife combat.

Springblade #1 is a strong start to the series, with a good focus on its main character. However as is customary for latter-day men’s adventure series, this first volume is much too concerned with scene-setting; in the ‘70s the first volume of a series would start right in, maybe doling out the origin in backstory (if at all). But by the time the genre was dying in the early ‘90s the focus was more on playing everything out. Hence, it takes a long time to get to the blood and gore in this book; in fact, there’s no major action until the final thirty pages.

Another indication of the publication date is that much of Springblade #1 veers a little too close to military fiction, at least for my taste. Another thing I preferred about ‘70s men’s adventure was that, for the most part, the protagonists were lone wolves. Teams were all the rage in series fiction in the ‘80s, and as the decade progressed the teams became more and more similar to your average Delta squad or SEAL team.

Anyway, our hero Bo Thornton is in his early 40s, unmarried, and now makes his living running a dive shop in California with Frank Hartung, an old war buddy. Thornton, like his creator, has a preference for bladed weapons and misses the rush of combat; after ‘Nam he did some special ops work for various agencies, and now an old DEA contact, a former SEAL named Bailey, calls Thornton while he’s on vacation in Oregon to see if he’d be interested in flying down to DC to consider taking on a special project.

A drug kingpin named Tony Dancer, no doubt modeled on Pablo Escobar but more fashionable, is plotting a new cocaine empire with which to take over the entire coke pipeline into the US. For reasons of bizarre coincidence, Dancer’s headquarters for this operation will be in Oregon! He plans to mask the place as a resort, and the intel the Feds have acquired shows that Dancer will host a party among his lieutenants on Christmas Eve, officially unveiling the place for business.

The DEA, through Bailey, asks Thornton to put together a special ops team to both destroy the coke lab and kill all of the occupants. This last order comes direct from the president of the US, who wants Tony Dancer dead. Thornton, sick of the social mire the modern world has fallen into, accepts the mission with relish. He makes his resort cabin in Oregon his new base of operations and calls in Hartung to act again as Seargent Major.

Thornton puts together his team from his old experience as well as a list of candidates the DEA provides. From his ‘Nam days he gets Jason Silver, a LRRP, and through the DEA he gets David Lee, a Delta commando and the only member of the team (dubbed “Springblade”) that’s currently on active duty. These three men, with Hartung acting as a sort of mother hen, will infiltrate Dancer’s complex on Christmas Eve and kill everyone inside.

Walker has a bit in common with Dan Schmidt in that he has too many characters and too many subplots in too short a book. While Silver and Lee barely get much narrative time (and indeed come off as ciphers), Walker does focus on incidental characters. In particular, Monk and his wooly gang of biker outlaws, who have been screwed over by Dancer’s unifying of the coke trade and now want revenge. They too plan an attack on Dancer’s place on Christmas eve, but it all just sort of fizzles out, and the biker subplot could be removed with no effect to the narrative.

Another thing is that Springblade #1 doesn’t have any action until the very last pages. Walker keeps it moving with a taut narrative style and good characterization, but he does insert the most goofy “I need to put an action scene here” moment I’ve yet encountered in one of these series novels. Early in the novel Thornton meets Linda, the attractive receptionist at his resort, and he takes her on a date. After dropping her off Thornton picks up a hitchhiker, just for the hell of it.

Yep, turns out the hitchhiker’s a murderer, and he attempts to waste Thornton. Little does he know that Thornton carries around a ballistic knife in his car. There follows a brief sequence where Thornton easily dispatches his would-be killer, pulls the body out of his car and stashes it off of the night road, covers his tracks, drives home…and cracks open a beer! The incident is never mentioned again, let alone reflected upon by a beer-sipping Thornton.

Otherwise Walker delivers good action scenes, with lots of detail on the particular weapons the Springblade team takes with them. (The “techno-commando” stuff mostly comes down to their nightvision goggles and comlink equipment.) The finale is entertaining, with the team infiltrating the drug compound in the dead of night, silently taking out guards. Walker packs on the violence here, though not to extreme levels. He seems to save his gorier descriptions for the knife battles, like when Thornton is jumped by a SEAL who happens to be employed by Dancer, and the two go at it with their blades.

Walker shares another similarity with Dan Schmidt in that his finales are pretty anticlimatic, which just as in Schmidt’s work is a bit surprising given how good the build-up is. He spends a lot of time showcasing Thornton’s battle with the aforementioned SEAL, a character who is basically a nonentity so far as the plot goes, but brushes off Dancer’s fate in an off-screen fashion. Unlike Schmidt though, there’s more characterization here, with Thornton given to a lot of introspection and self-doubt, plus his camaraderie with Hartung leads to a lot of military-style banter.

I also need to mention that Springblade #1 is unabashedly pre-PC. Every black, hispanic, or other minority is a drug dealer, gangster, or murderer; there’s a goofy scene where Thornton and Bailey, driving through DC, point their fingers gun-style at a black dude they pass on the street…and Walker is sure to inform us that the black dude is indeed a gun-carrying drug dealer! (Though obviously Thornton and Bailey couldn’t know that…)

A brief inspection of future volumes of Springblade proves that this will only increase…I opened up to a wacky scene in the next installment where Thornton takes on a group of gay transvestite muggers – who intend to rape him – hacking them up in super-gory detail! I tell you, the bizarre joys of the men’s adventure genre will never be matched in any other literature…

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