Monday, April 15, 2013

Masked Dog

Masked Dog, by Raymond Obstfeld
August, 1986  Gold Eagle Books

Raymond Obstfeld is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Masked Dog isn’t as great as his Invasion U.S.A. novelization, but it’s a lot of fun, filled with vibrant dialog, strong characters, and plenty of suspense. It’s to the novel’s disservice that it was published by Gold Eagle, lending the impression that the novel’s just another SuperBolan or something. In reality it’s a melding of the suspense, spy, and horror genres.

“Masked Dog” is the code name of a CIA project that has been going on for the past decade: an agency scientist has been injecting a volunteer prisoner with a battery of experimental drugs that have removed all traces of fear from the test subject and have also granted him with superhuman strength. Gee, what could go wrong?? As you’d expect, the test subject, a pedophile pediatrist named Gifford Devane, has broken free and is now loose and looking for a little revenge.

Devane’s main target is a former rock superstar named Price Calender, who now lives a low-level life playing revival concerts and the like. Price worked for the CIA a bit in the previous decade; in a backstory that doesn’t quite ring true, we learn that Price got involved with the agency after a run-in with the law and in exchange for his freedom he agreed to act as a courier during his global tours. Price also eventually married a gorgeous lady named Liza R (no last name), a lady who turned out to be a Commie spy who insinuated herself with Price because he was a CIA goon and because she wanted to get to Devane and the Masked Dog program.

Liza R was a package deal; she came with a daughter from a brief, earlier marriage, a toddler named Rebecca who Price eventually adopted. But again, Liza’s marriage to Price was all just a ruse, and after an aborted attempt seven years ago to break out Devane, Liza carried out a running battle with the CIA, even using her own daughter as a human shield. (The end result being an errant bullet that shattered Rebecca’s knee, so that she now walks with a brace.) Price himself killed Liza…or so he thought. As Masked Dog opens, we learn that due to some commie subterfuge Liza’s death was merely staged, and now she is here with a fellow KGB operative, tracking down the loose Masked Dog.

Again, all this is backstory and it’s doled out gradually and masterfully in the narrative. Price is not your typical Gold Eagle protagonist by a longshot – he’s not a trained agent, and doesn’t even know how to handle a weapon. This is taken care of by Jo, one of Obstfeld’s typically-great female characters, a CIA agent who Baroness style was a woman of high society but grew bored of the jetset life and became a secret agent. Price and Jo have a great “meet cute” and Obstfeld really plays up on the comedy, banter, and relationship that grows between them. And when the expected sex scene comes, late in the tale, it’s unexpectedly explicit – yet another divergence from the typical Gold Eagle fare.

Obstfeld works up the tension and suspense; there isn’t much action in Masked Dog until the end, other than Devane’s brief encounters with old friends and the criminal underworld. Also graced with a quicker mind and photographic memory, Devane wants to advertise himself to the highest bidder as an assassin, so he announces that he will murder a famous East German dignitary, despite the massive amount of security which will surround the guy. Devane’s assassination too is carried out in more of a suspenseful nature than the pyrotechnics you’d expect, and Obstfeld makes it even more tense with Jo being caught in the fray.

Devane also has superstrength and can tear people apart. Obstfeld plays up the dark comedy with Devane coming off like a superpowered Hannibal Lecter, though without the serial killer aspect – his taste veers toward adolescent girls, and over the course of the narrative he catches a few of them, the ensuing grisly deaths only vaguely hinted at. But Devane gradually realizes that something is going wrong…his memory is clouding, he has lost his sense of taste, and it dawns on him that though he can’t feel pain, he can still be killed.

Obstfeld takes his time with the narrative, so that it all comes off as very character focused. All of the characters are given depth, save for maybe Liza R. I love pulpy female villains, but Liza R is just too inhuman, too much of a cipher. Obstfeld provides a backstory that attempts to explain at least a little how she could be so cold blooded (she was raised by leftist American parents who emigrated to the USSR but then abandoned her at a young age), but still she is too cold, too robotic. Obstfeld to his credit makes Liza thoroughly despicable; several times she “tests” herself to see if she might give a damn about her daughter Rebecca, finding each time that she doesn’t care if the little girl lives or dies.

Action scenes here and there liven things up…Devane’s assassination attempt of the German dignitary, or Devane’s scuffles with hoodlums. Suspense takes center stage throughout, particularly a tension-filled scene where Devane sneaks into Price’s empty home and poisons his cigarettes; throughout the ensuing scene with Price, Obstfeld keeps toying with us, mentioning the cigarettes lying there, Price picking one up and about to light it but then getting distracted. Then Jo shows up and the suspense really mounts – all told, a masterful scene. But just one of many.

The action heats up toward the end, like when Liza R and her KGB associates corner Devane, who manages to take out the redshirts and then engages in a duel to the death with a martial arts master, all while Liza coldly watches. The climax takes a page from Stephen King with Devane kidnapping Rebecca and stashing her in an empty fitness center, with Price venturing in solo and taking on Devane by himself. He’s easily outmatched, getting his arms and fingers broken by a nude Devane who swings from the shadows to torment him. All of this actually reminded me of the climax of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford’s character was similarly tortured by his superpowered foe.

I guess the only problem I had with Masked Dog is it’s a little too long for its own good. The novel is over 300 pages and a lot of it could be cut. In particular the suspense of the climax is a little destroyed because, as Price sneaks through the darkened and creepy fitness center, Obstfeld somehow decides to inform us what the place is like during the day and what Price’s usual workout routine is like. But stuff like this is rare and for the most part the novel moves at an assured pace, really getting us to like its characters to the point where we are emotionally invested in the outcome.

Perhaps due to its publisher, Masked Dog didn’t make much of a dent, it appears…it only had this one printing, and like the other Gold Eagle titles of the time it was probably pulled off the shelves when the next bi-monthly shipment of Gold Eagle stock came in. It’s too bad, because this is a very good novel, one that should have had a larger audience.

And the cover by the way is a die cut, something I’ve never seen from Gold Eagle. Here’s the inner cover:


russell1200 said...

Wouldn't the assassin podiatrist (or what ever he is) be easy to catch? Since he doesn't fear anything he will just walk around undisguised.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Russell. The Devane guy is actually more crafty and cunning, so he manages to stay a few steps ahead of the cops and Feds. The "no fear" element only comes into play when he faces up against an obviously tougher opponent, or if he goes into a dangerous situation -- he doesn't feel any of the fear that would hold back the average person.

Will Errickson said...

OMG it's like David Hasselhoff and the neighbor from That '70s Show went through a telepod together.