Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Black Gold of Malaverde

The Black Gold of Malaverde, by Richard L. Graves
November, 1974  Bantam Books

I’ve recently been watching the old Mission: Impossible TV series, something I’ve wanted to do since I caught a few episodes in syndication as a kid in the late ‘80s. The show lasted for seven seasons, running from 1966 to 1973, and most fans prefer the first three seasons, when the IMF team took on spies from fictional ComBloc countries. But I much prefer the later seasons, where they took on “the Syndicate,” ie the mob in all but name, and the IMF fashions took a funky ‘70s turn.

As mentioned, the series came to an end in 1973, which coincidentally enough is when The Black Gold of Malaverde was published in hardcover. I’m willing to bet that author Richard L. Graves was a fan of Mission: Impossible, as this novel follows the same sort of caper approach, with a highly-skilled covert team running a con on foreign soil. The protagonist, Hugo Wolfram, is not only an emotionless mastermind of plotting, but he’s also described as a tall, lanky individual with a shock of white hair – sounds like Jim Phelps (aka Peter Graves) to me. (And if that isn’t enough…I mean, Richard Graves!)

Wolfram doesn’t even appear until about 80 pages in, though. The first quarter of The Black Gold of Malaverde focuses on the political turmoil in Malaverde, a fictional country in South America. Mercado, the self-proclaimed “Liberator” of Malaverde, has wrested control of the country and is kicking out the “imperialists,” ie the Americans who in fact created the country in the first place, Malaverde being nothing more than a banana republic. Mercado has the backing of DePrundis, an obese Greek pirate in all but name – a powerful but shadowy figure in the economic world. As the novel opens they take control of an oil field, imprisoning Bradford, the American head of the oil operation.

Bradford’s here in Malaverde overseeing his company’s oil interests, which both he and his father developed. DePrundis wants control of the oil, thus his backing of Mercado. The Liberator meanwhile proves to be a thoroughly despicable character, a diminutive bastard who tries to act like a big man as he screams orders at his underlings and threatens Bradford. To be honest this sequence goes on much too long, with Bradford enduring a farce of a trial. At the end though he is sentenced to death, and hung, the US government not even bothering to intercede on his behalf.

Bradford Senior meanwhile has been trying to save his son. First he approaches the Bank, a mysterious economic intelligence group, who tell Bradford he should comply with Mercado’s ransom demands. Bradford does, but Mercado just ends up taking the money and going on with his planned murder of Bradford Jr. This time the Bank puts Bradford Sr in touch with Wolfram, with whom Bradford has before worked – in a background Graves leaves mysterious, the two men were covert operatives in WWII, and in fact Bradford trained Wolfram, “removing his conscience,” but Wolfram far exceeded his teacher in plotting and ruthlessness.

Wolfram currently works as an explosives expert, helping companies destroy and dismantle properties. This dovetails with the mission Bradford desires of him; Bradford wants Wolfram to basically destroy Malaverde’s economy, blasting away the oil rigs Bradford’s company created. He also wants the country’s sole shipping line destroyed. Plus he wants it all to look like an accident. Wolfram goes to work putting together his plan, and Graves undercuts the later suspense here, with we readers learning every element of the scheme in blueprint detail.

The narrative starts to move as Wolfram next puts together his team. True to genre form it’s an unusual bunch: a Japanese actor, a black American ship captain, a Cuban scuba diver (who insists upon bringing along his former prostitute of a “sister”), and a jaded helicopter pilot. Wolfram, very cool and aloof, respects each of them because they are technical experts. He’s worked with them all before, and there’s another mysterious backstory in that a diver on his previous mission got killed, so the team is understandably concerned that history might repeat itself.

The caper itself unfolds in the final quarter of the novel. Magraw, the ship captain, manages to crash a vessel in Malaverde’s port, thus blocking it, and Wolfram and the helicopter pilot pose as representatives of the Cosmo Construction Company (another element Graves leaves mysterious; the intimation is this fictitious company is just a CIA front). Meanwhile the two scuba divers create the waterway diversion which allows Magraw’s ship to block the channel.

But here Graves doles out the laziest killing off of a character I’ve yet encountered, with Esposito, the lead scuba diver, deciding for absolutely no reason not to wear his wetsuit! After being cut up by barnacles he’s later attacked by a small shark and thus bleeds to death. It’s supposed to be a “complication” Wolfram must work around, but instead it comes off as comical, given how avoidable it was – especially when one considers how anxious Esposito had been about the mission, given that a diver died on the previous one. I mean, you’d figure the guy would be overly cautious.

One of the many things that was great about Mission: Impossible was that it followed the time-honored “show don’t tell” philosophy; other than a very brief planning scene early on, each episode unfolded with the caper playing out for the audience the same way it did for those being conned. Graves however both tells and shows; Wolfram painstakingly unveils his plan for Bradford early in the book, and when the caper finally goes down later on, it goes down exactly like Wolfram outlined it. Hence, other than the stupid death of Esposito, there are no complications, no surprises. Also there are no intricacies to the plot, none of the elaborate disguise work or role-acting of Mission: Impossible; instead they just crash a ship, blocking Malaverde’s port, and set it to blow up!

There isn’t much characterization; Wolfram is notorious for his emotionless nature, and about the most we get is a little squabbling among his team. Mercado is the only memorable character in the book, mostly because he’s so cartoonishly evil, a "midget" blowhard who stomps around blathering over his own self-importance. Also the book is basically rated G; no cursing, no sex, and minimal violence. (Once again just like Mission: Impossible!) The end is also a bit anticlimatic; we spend the entire narrative wanting to see Mercado get his comeuppance, but Graves delivers it off-camera.

Overall I found The Black Gold of Malaverde an entertaining read, but I do wish there had been a bit more tension and suspense. At any rate Hugo Wolfram returned for three more novels, which I will be reading eventually.


Tim Mayer said...

Note that the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE show was canceled the same year as the Watergate revelations. Seems like a covert government task force was suddenly not a fun topic.

Joe Kenney said...

Good point, Tim, and thanks for the comment. Who knows, maybe that was the one mission the IMF team failed -- bugging Watergate.

Marty McKee said...

Did you read those other Hugo Wolfram books?

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Marty. No, I haven't read any more of these books yet, but I intend to one of these days.