Thursday, May 9, 2013

Women With Guns

Women With Guns, edited by Noah Sarlat
April, 1962  Paperback Library

Noah Sarlat was the editor for several men’s adventure magazines, among them For Men Only and Male, the magazines in which the five stories collected in this paperback originally appeared. Sarlat appears to have been a genius in that he realized that "girls + guns = guaranteed sales," and this collection focuses on such stories. Unfortunately though the “girls with guns” motif is not the main focus of any of the stories, so the title is pretty misleading. On the plus side, all of the stories here offer up quality writing, with strong characters and plotting.

First up is “Warrior Women of Viet Nam” by Emile C. Schurmacher, which originally saw print in the March 1959 For Men Only. Like the other stories in the book this is a long one, nearly 40 pages of small print – the Sarlat-edited mags always ran a “True Booklength” feature in each issue, ie extra-length short stories (which of course were passed off as “true stories”), and this story as well as the other four were such features, hence the length. Anyway this story is unusual because it was written before the US involvement in ‘Nam, and occurs a few years after the French withdrawal.

Our hero is Sam Dallas, a square-jawed adventurer type who makes his living flying a cargo plane in Southeast Asia. He’s become friendly with a Eurasian prostitute named Nan Luke, who has told Dallas that there’s a lost cache of gold in the jungle. Dallas and his partner and Nan Luke head into the jungle and get the gold – the story opens after they’ve already snatched it and are flying away. Dallas’s plane breaks down midair and they crash into the jungles of ‘Nam. The story plays out here; after their crash Dallas and company are surrounded by pretty ladies who emerge from the jungle; they are the Hoa Hao, a legendary band of all-female warriors who live in the mountains and wage war on both the Communists and French.

Their leader, Repan Sirik, holds Nan Luke captive so that Dallas can help her distract a local warrior Repan and her warrior-sisters want to kill. Schurmacher doesn’t much play up the “women with guns” angle; Repan and her ladies hack up a few of their enemies with knives, but otherwise only one of them carries around a Sten gun, which she casually holds on Dallas to ensure he doesn’t bolt. Repan makes the expected advance on Dallas, who spurns her – he’s dedicated to Nan Luke – and Repan disappears from the narrative. Her comrades return Nan Luke to Dallas, and they escape into the jungle, the rest of the story playing out in summary as Dallas is only able to collect a small portion of the gold. All told, a sort of middling story, but the writing is good.

The second story is the weakest of the collection, despite having the best title: “Hitler’s Hustlers of Bremen,” by George Mandel (which I believe was a psuedonym of Neil Pritchie, or vice versa). This one originally appeared in the September 1959 issue of For Men Only and takes place in post-war Germany, in the summer of 1947 to be exact. Jim Wilbur of the CID goes undercover as an arms supplier to root out a smuggling and black market operation which is apparently funding a neo-Nazi movement.

The plot and title are good, but Mandel writes this thing like it’s a piece of literature, spending more time on description and character, so that it comes off as very plodding. Suspense and subterfuge play a bigger factor than action or adventure. Only a late development where we meet a widow who oversees a group of pretty gals who are all still Nazis has any of the sensationalism hinted at on the back cover of the book. But this sequence is over quick and besides once again it’s the men doing all the fighting – this story doesn’t live up to the anthology theme at all, and I’m certain Noah Sarlat could’ve found a more fitting story to put here.

The third story is the strongest, and of them all most lives up to the book’s theme: “Five Greek Girls to Istanbul,” by Richard F. Gallagher, from the April 1960 issue of Male. It’s 1940 and the Nazis have just invaded Greece. Morgan Farrell, a young American civil engineer living in Athens, is approached by some VIP local citizens; these rich families want Farrell to escort their daughters to Istanbul, where they can escape the Germans and move on to safer locales. Farrell takes the job, setting off through Greece with his five female charges, all of whom as you would expect are pretty, in particular two of them: Katina, who seems game to do whatever Farrell orders, and Persephone, a fiery beauty who is just as headstrong as her father.

This story exudes a machismo long since vanished from popular fiction: Farrell is, in our modern era, pretty much a dick, bossing the girls around and slapping them when he feels it necessary. For example, Persephone disagrees with him early in the journey. Farrell puts her over his knee and paddles her ass! And you won’t be surprised to learn that, after this, Persephone starts to see Farrell a whole lot differently…and in fact turns out to become Farrell’s girl, instead of the more-expected Katina. (Who herself has a run-in with Farrell…asking him one night which girl he’ll sleep with first, then kissing him, then pushing him away, and then Farrell slapping her twice. To which she replies, “I deserved that.” Imagine how it would play out in a movie, people!)

Gallagher, who it appears churned out a plethora of men’s adventure stories, really captures the vibe of a group of freedom fighters going up against Nazi bastards. Also this tale lives up to the anthology’s title, with the girls getting hold of weapons after Farrell kills a few Germans. There’s a fun scene where they are escaping from an SS patrol across an empty festival grounds; the girls appropriate a chariot and take off in it, firing at the Germans with Schmeisser submachine guns. After this though the girls fade into the background as Gallagher hooks up with Planko and his rebel army on the outskirts of Greece, and the story becomes a pissing contest between the two men as they try to outmatch one another in killng Germans. Still though, this was a fun story and offered pretty much all you could want in WWII pulp.

“Slaughter and the Sexton’s Daughter” is the next tale, courtesy Burton Shean. It originally appeared in the February 1960 Male and is another early WWII story, occuring in Denmark in 1940, just as the Germans have invaded. Dennis Norden, an American-born Dane, is returning home from Sweden, to which he fled five years ago after knocking up a sexton’s daughter. Word came to Norden that his aunt and uncle ran afoul of the Nazis and were killed for it, so he’s coming back to dish out a little revenge. And he gets off on the right foot, wasting a Nazi mere moments after arriving.

Norden runs into his old flame, Minerva, the sexton’s daughter. (The sexton by the way never even appears in the story!) She slaps Norden for running out on her, informs him that their child was given up for adoption, and says to hell with it anyway, she’ll join him in his war against the Nazis. Norden puts together a team of locals, dubbed the Norden Liberators, and they wage smallscale warfare on the Germans in that pulp fiction way that makes it all come off like fun – using the gals as bait to snare officers, sneaking toilet paper into German HQ with Hitler’s face on it, stealing a printing press and writing up news advances about their terrorist activities, etc.

Things get real when Minerva is killed by the Germans – once again a “woman with a gun” is quickly removed from the story. From there it continues on apace with Norden becoming increasingly vicious, even gunning down a parachutist who claims to be a British agent sent here to help the cause. (We learn at the very end of course that the dude really was a damn Nazi.) There’s also a memorable bit – one that the back-cover copyists surprisingly didn’t capitalize on in their misleading sensationalistic blurbs – where Norden gets some plastique that a comrade fashions into fake bosoms. The female members wear them on their way to work inside a German plant, then strip them off and set them to blow. So anyway, overall a fun story even though again it was another one that didn’t live up to the book’s theme.

The final tale takes us back to Southeast Asia: “The Violent Virgins of Laos,” by James Collier, originally from the November 1961 For Men Only. This one goes back to the pulpy adventure feel of the opening tale, but it’s a lot better, featuring more sadism and violence. As for the sex, it’s there, too, but like all of the sex scenes in the stories collected here they are over before they start, merely alluded to in an ellipsesed sentence, no doubt due to the years when these were written.

Anyway our hero this time is Sgt. Philip Jackson, a veteran of Korea who is here in Laos training locals how to fight against the Pathet Lao. The story opens with Jackson and his corporal Tuli already imprisoned and watching as the Pathet Lao leader executes some locals for Jackson’s “enjoyment.” (Humorously, the back cover incorrectly states that Tuli is the “woman with a gun” in this story!) Jackson is strung up to be eaten by a tiger unless he tells the Pathet Lao he will help them, but as these things happen a lovely female warrior emerges from the jungle and kills the Pathet Lao guard. She is from a “Meo village” and is against the Commies; she further helps Jackson free Tuli and together the three of them make off into the jungle.

The pulp stuff really comes to the fore when we learn there is a “sacred grove of virgins” where Meo women will go when they have a hankering, shall we say. Jackson gets wind of this and sneaks on a boat filled with the latest voyagers to the grove, and Collier intimates that Jackson and the Meo warrior-woman, Hak Soun, get friendly themselves. (Though again, it’s kind of hard to tell what with the bowdlerized writing). The Pathet Lao catch them, though, only for Tuli to show up to the rescue astride an elephant. He manages to knock over a temple in the process, and there follows a goofy but fun scene where an old monk keeps following the trio as they move on through the jungle – Tuli is certain the old man is casting a spell on them for destroying his temple.

The pulpy thrills continue as the monks force the trio up into the Tower of Silence, a tower prison alongisde a cliff with only one way out: a forty foot drop. As usual our hero’s resourcefulness saves the day; everyone strips, using their clothes to weave a rope. From there the tale becomes more standard, with the three of them constantly evading Commie patrols and getting in skirmishes, finally commandeering a boat and escaping. Hak Soun is used throughout as bait for traps – as are all of the other women in these stories, in fact. If there’s one thing I learned from Women with Guns, it’s that if you’re ever part of an invading army you should never follow after a pretty native woman, as more than likely she’ll be leading you into a death trap.

But it’s interesting really how the women are used throughout the book…other than a few instances where they gun down their opponents, the girls here are instead forced to use their looks and bodies to ensnare some horny enemy soldier, after which the men will do the dirty work of killing. This actually serves to put the women in more danger, as they are the ones who have to lure out the enemy; Hak Soun in particular has to do this for four different Pathet Lao soldiers in this story, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they get wise.

Another interesting thing here is that the male protagonists never end up with these native women; in each case we are informed at the end of the story that the dude headed back to America and never heard from the native woman again. I wonder if this is due to the traditional “man who can’t be domesticated” vibe of pulp fiction or if it’s more of a matter that these white American males can’t sully themselves with foreign women…at least not permanently. Anyway, it’s an interesting question, or at least seemed to be as I typed this paragraph.

Noah Sarlat edited several other anthologies of men’s adventure magazine stories, and I have picked up most of them, as well as others published under the names of various authors, so I look forward to reading more. I usually don’t like short stories and I much prefer novels, but these stories were long enough to provide sufficient plots and characterizations, so I really had an enjoyable time reading the book.


James Reasoner said...

Glad to hear that this book is pretty good, since I have a copy of it and plan to get around to reading it one of these days.

Ben said...

Man, I gotta say. I've been reading you for quite a while and the treasures you dig up never cease to amaze me. Good job.

I miss those days where the title of your book would explain exactly what was in it. If you didn't like to read about women with guns, well you didn't read that. People made fun of Snakes on a Plane a few years ago, but I miss these days where everything was so blissfully unself aware.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments! James, this is a fun book and I really enjoyed reading it, so I hope you enjoy it, too. Ben, you are 100% correct on how old books were titled so much better. I think the pinnacle might be the 14th volume of the Marksman series, which was simply titled "Kill!" With the exclamation point and everything.

Jack Nevada said...

I had a good time with this one, though more as a cross-section of pulp fiction than as actually what it says on the tin. I probably shouldn't complain about pulp having inaccurate titles/cover art, but it's the principle of the thing. Likewise the boring cover art and even the short stories being given less interesting titles. Who likes "The Warrior Women of Viet Nam" over "The Yank Who Lived With Indochina's Amazon Women"?

But I suppose if it had better cover art, it'd probably be more expensive on eBay.

"Warrior Women" was a good bit of 'Gold Monkey' type cargo plane shenanigans. "Hitler's Hustlers" was a bore--too much of a soap opera between various German neurotics and instead of Nazi Hooker hijinx, you get SVU: The Post-War years. "Five Greek Girls" was a lot of fun, and probably the closest thing to the Grindhouse-adjacent fare most people would expect from this. "Slaughter" (another odd, boring title--the main guy's not even named Slaughter!) is a great 'Howling Commandos' type war yarn. And "Violent Virgins"--aside from the bizarro title--is a fun POW story.

None of them did much with the girls; Warrior Women threw in a love triangle, but the hero is unaccountably chaste. I guess a reminder that this is back when James Bond having a different girl in every book was borderline pornography. But, still, largely strong selection, good diversity of content, and you get the occasional bomb-blast of a line like "the loveliest joy girl in the swankiest bordello in Cholon."

Now there's something to put on a business card.