Monday, September 16, 2013

The Smuggler #4: Mother Luck

The Smuggler #4: Mother Luck, by Paul Petersen
November, 1974  Pocket Books

Our cable lineup features a retro-programming network called MeTV; the other month they were playing a Donna Reed Show marathon, and after each commercial break they’d have a “Paul Petersen Remembers” segment, where Petersen would talk about being a child actor on that show. I bet I was the only person in the viewing audience who thought to himself, “Hey, that’s the guy who wrote that scene in The Smuggler #2 where a black sadist murdered a girl and then raped her corpse!”

At any rate the Smuggler series continues to search for a genre. Whereas the first volume was a boring origin story, the second installment was filled with clunky writing, outrageous sadism, and super-explicit sex scenes. Then the third volume veered from standard spy fiction to gritty, Narc-esque inner city crime before ending with Mind Masters-style supernatural stuff, all in the same book. Now this fourth volume is just a straight-up spy drama, with none of the sensational elements of the previous two novels. There isn’t even a single sex scene for poor old hero Saveman!

It’s curious that two volumes were published per month: volumes 1 and 2 both came out in September, 1974, and volumes 3 and 4 came out two months later. According to the copyright page (as well as the Catalog of Copyright Entries), the books really were written by Paul Petersen, along with a co-writer named David Oliphant (who was apparently an editor), but given this accelerated rate of publication and the disparity between installments, I figure these guys had to have been trading off on the writing duties.

Enough dithering -- Mother Luck is a return to the bland and boring nature that was the first volume. After the wild extremities of the previous two installments this one was really hard going; I kept waiting for some bizarre sadism or extreme sex scenes to occur, but there’s hardly anything of the sort…the narrative just plods along, Petersen (or Oliphant?) spending more time on character and scene-setting, as if he is writing a Robert Ludlum-style thriller instead of the latest volume of a series that previously featured a scene where a dude had a mask with a rat in it strapped over his face.

Eric “Smuggler” Saveman when we meet him again is deep in the icy water beneath a Russian gun manufacturing plant, where using his one-man sub he’s able to infiltrate the place, kill a pair of guards and stage their corpses so it looks like an accident, and finally gum up the manufacturing works. Meanwhile a young nuclear physicist named Michael Brock steals a shipment of radioactive waste, which contains enough plutonium for his mysterious needs. In a third and even more initially-unrelated plot, two older physicists are about to fly from Paris, and after receiving his latest orders Saveman is flown to Paris so he can catch the Pan Am flight they’re on.

But then the plane is skyjacked! This whole scene comes off as so arbitrary and just goes on and on. Saveman’s cover is as “Eric Nichols,” a qualified pilot who comes from money in Connecticut – all this will be further drilled into us later on. Also on the plane, posing as a stewardess, is Belinda, a gorgeous black agent who trained with Saveman back in the second volume. Anyway we see how much the times have changed; skyjacking is seen by Saveman and the others as an annoying fad, and the hijackers, Muslims from Oman, treat everyone nicely and promise that no passengers will die as they divert the plane to Algiers. There’s even a bit where Saveman doubts that the hijackers would kill themselves by crashing the plane; too bad these original-model terrorists were slowly fazed out by the current mass-murderers of today.

After killing the terrorists, Saveman talks the passengers into roping up the slain hijackers and tossing them out onto the tarmac as the plane passes over the Algiers airport, as a warning against future hijackings! I don’t see Pan Am being too hapy about this, but at any rate Saveman (still posing as Eric Nichols) is now a celebrity and we must endure endless and padded scenes where he talks to airline reps, the passengers, and finally reporters as they interview him.

The boring, padded nature continues as now the brunt of the narrative is concerned with Saveman’s new identity. He hooks up with his dad, Doc Saveman, who’s also part of the “Nichols” cover, and also Marge, a blind lady who is posing as Doc’s wife and thus Saveman’s mom. This bit is just bizarre because Saveman is so unsettled over the thought of having a mom again, as his real one died so long ago, and he keeps psyching himself up to go meet her in their cover home and etc, etc…I mean, like it’s all real life and not just part of a plan cooked up by General Velasco, the head of Saveman’s agency, ZED.

There follows more banal stuff as Velasco, whose ZED standing of course is top secret, comes out to the public in his normal guise as a reclusive multi-millionaire; he informs Saveman that all this is a ruse so as to get himself kidnapped. This finally goes down in one of the novel’s few action scenes, with Velasco captured and Saveman freeing himself long enough to blow away a separate detachment of kidnappers. But the boss of ZED has been abducted, and now Saveman has to find him, and plus there’s that cache of plutonium, and Michael Brock’s mysterious plans…by this point we are well over a hundred pages in, and the plot of Mother Luck still has not jelled.

Saveman spends the majority of the final quarter sitting in ZED headquarters and gathering data; finally they track the abducted Velasco to Oman, and Saveman heads there. Turns out a billionaire named Drummond is behind it all, and he’s looking to take over this portion of Oman and etc…then there’s this arbitrary WTF? part where Drummond gives himself a wine enema(!) while he orders the also-abducted Belinda to blow one of his men as he watches…and this guy Belinda’s blowing turns out to be gay – gay for Drummond, in fact – and this bizarre but brief scene gets even more bizarre as Drummond mounts Belinda and the gay dude mounts Drummond!

In fact Belinda gets more action (so to speak) than Saveman, taking out the villains with a broken champagne bottle; Saveman himself shows up after the fireworks. And that’s that! We go back to ZED headquarters for a long, anticlimatic denoument in which a traitor is outed…and meanwhile Doc Saveman’s really in love with Marge, his fake wife, so why not get married for real? It’s all just so…I don’t know, stupid.

Here’s hoping the next volume isn’t so bland and forgettable. I’d even be happy for a return to the outrageous sadism and kinkiness of the second volume after the snoozefest that was Mother Luck.


Grant said...

Was naming the villain "Drummond" an inside joke, as in Bulldog Drummond?

horrox said...

The part about the skyjacking in this book reminded me of a non-fiction book I just read on the subject, that I highly recommend, with your '70s obsession I think you'd find it very enjoyable - also its one of those "truth is stranger than fiction" reads, you couldn't make this stuff up. Check it out:

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments!

Grant, I'm not sure about it being an inside joke -- this series in particular sort of lacks a sense of humor. Even the OTT torture porn stuff in volume #2 was played pretty straight, so to speak. But who knows, it might have been!

Horrox, thanks for the book recommendation, I'll check it out. As irony would have it this weekend I rewatched "Magnum Force" for the first time in several years. I'd forgotten all about that arbitrary scene where Dirty Harry takes on the hippie-terrorist skyjackers.

Marty McKee said...

I was just going to ask if you thought Petersen really wrote this, and--lo--you beat me to it. I read a couple of these, and, eh.