Monday, December 30, 2013

The Executioner #46: Bloodsport

The Executioner #46: Bloodsport, by Raymond Obstfeld
October, 1982  Gold Eagle Books

It was strange reading one of Gold Eagle's first Executioner publications. Written by Raymond Obstfeld, Bloodsport seems less like that writer’s own work and more like an attempt at mimicking the style of Don Pendleton. From what Stephen Mertz has told me, this was no doubt intentional, given that in the earliest days Gold Eagle strived to retain the feel of Pendleton’s work.

It’s funny though because, other than a few stretches here and there, Bloodsport doesn’t come off much at all like the work of the guy who gave us Masked Dog and the awesome Invasion U.S.A. novelization. Throughout the novel, Obstfeld’s narrative will arbitrarily break off into Pendleton-style rhetoric about the evils of terrorism or the heroic nature of Mack Bolan; that is, when it isn’t indulging in Gold Eagle’s other favorite mainstay: gun-porn. Given that Obstfeld had already published a handful of novels by this point, my assumption then is that all of this is mostly due to some editorial manipulation.

Also since it’s so early in the series this installment has April Rose, the hotbod Stony Man PC lady who served as Bolan’s love interest and was later killed (in a Mertz installment, by the way), likely to the relief of fans everywhere. I’d forgotten how boring of a character she was. However April shares no time with Bolan this time out, instead hunching over a computer back in Stony Man HQ, “head Fed” Hal Brognola leaning over her shoulder all the while. Periodically the narrative will shift over to these two for some pages-filling, go-nowhere scenes as they worry about the Executioner.

Anyway Bolan’s in Germany when we meet him, cracking down on a blackmarket gunrunning ring on a US Army base. Bloodsport is unusually short on action scenes, but we have one here as Bolan and two young security guards break in on a fat sergeant and his underlings, a few hours before these men are scheduled to meet with representatives from German terrorist group the Zwilling Horde. Bolan blows a hole in the fat sergeant’s head and spends the rest of the novel posing as him – another penchant from the Pendleton era, with Bolan operating for the most part undercover.

The Horde is led by a pair of insane siblings: Thomas and Tanya Morganslicht (those German names just roll off the tongue, don’t they?). Tanya and a goon named Klaus show up for the gun-purchase from the man Bolan is posing as, and since the two never met the now-deceased sergeant no one’s the wiser. Bolan, with the help of the local Army base, fools Tanya into believing that he’s been found out, and blasting their way out (Tanya unwittingly firing blanks) they “escape.”

Bloodsport runs at 188 pages of big print, and most of it’s comprised of Bolan killing time with the Zwilling Horde as he tries to figure out what major threat they have planned. This is why he’s on the mission; that, and the handful of European Olympic athletes the Horde have kidnapped for some unknown reason. So then we have the obligatory scenes where Bolan must convince Tanya and her brother that he’s just a heartless “businessman” and is only willing to help out the Horde in exchange for payment.

The hostaged athletes are kept in a shack in the middle of the campgrounds that the Horde has taken over, deep in the German woods. There’s a martial arts master, an archery expert, a skier, and an attractive Czechoslovakian gymnast named Babette who of course would end up with Bolan in the final pages if it weren’t for April Rose. Bolan also has his chance with Tanya Morganslicht, who as you’ve no doubt guessed is beautiful herself. True to genre form the evil woman has raven-black hair whereas good girl Babette is of course a blonde.

In fact, the lack of sex is another throwback to the Pendleton era; when late in the tale Tanya makes her expected come-on to Bolan, our boy turns her down cold. Not that Obstfeld doesn’t have fun with the scene, having Tanya unbutton her blouse, show off her “ample breasts” as she propositions Bolan, and then slap around an underling who happens to stumble in on them. Bolan of course isn’t even attracted to the woman, despite her beauty, too disgusted by her sadism and evil nature. Jack Sullivan would’ve felt the same way, no doubt, but at least he would’ve still banged her.

Gradually Bolan learns what the Horde has in mind – they want to steal an experimental nerve gas called Yellow Rain and unleash it on playgrounds, killing “hundreds” of children! But for some bizarre reason, even after discovering this Bolan still bides his time, waiting until the 15 or so members of the group plan to steal it from a nearby base. Having told the hostaged athletes earlier that he’s really on their side, Bolan is able to spring them as they make their way for the base – the Horde having abducted these specific people so as to use their skills in the Yellow Rain theft.

Bloodsport ends on an action scene, as Bolan, armed with a Hechler and Koch G11, singlehandedly takes on the Horde. This sequence too seems to have been tinkered with behind the scenes, as tonally it’s at odds with the rest of the book, filled with these arbitrary sermons on the evils of the world as Bolan runs through the snow-filled woods. Also we’re denied a Bolan-Tanya confrontation; Bolan does get the drop on her, using her as bait, but Thomas ends the negotiations by blowing away his own sister. Thomas’s own death is nice and action movie-esque, with Bolan blowing up the van Thomas hides behind.

It wasn’t my favorite Gold Eagle Executioner by a longshot, but Bloodsport does have its moments, if they’re a bit lost amid the faux-Pendletonisms and the rampant rhetoric. The Prologue is especially laughable in this regard, reading almost like the transcript from a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. Also the gun-porn was pretty egregious here, with Bolan in his guise as a blackmarket arms merchant doling out huge chunks of firearms detail.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Z-Comm #3: MIA

Z-Comm #3: MIA, by Kyle Maning
No month stated, 1989  Leisure Books

If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night and asked yourself, “Hey, what if David Alexander had written a volume of MIA Hunter??”, then wonder no more, as this third installment of Z-Comm answers that very question. Unexpectedly though in MIA Alexander (once again posing as “Kyle Maning”) cuts back on the crazed tone of the previous two books of the series and attempts to craft a more restrained narrative.

In fact, action is sporadic for the first half of the novel, and when it does occur it lacks the OTT spirit typical of Alexander’s ‘80s work. It came to me that this is because the subject of MIA is a bit more personal to Alexander, who apparently was a soldier in Vietnam. The novel is filled with reflections on the war and its effects on the soldiers who fought in it, to the extent that Alexander’s patented action onslaught is for the most part subdued.

Already on the job in Bangkok, Z-Comm leader Logan Cage gets in a running battle with some Asian goons; after blowing a few away Cage discovers the goons have been sent here by General Quan, a drug kingpin who arranged the meeting in the first place. Quan has killed a competitor in the drug business as a sign of good faith – it was said competitor Cage was here to eliminate. And to further get in the good graces of the US, Quan provides Cage with intel on a possible MIA camp in Laos.

Cage takes the intel back to the CIA, who decides at great length to send someone in…but who? Uh, Z-Comm..the guys who brought in the intel in the first place! To be honest, this bit sort of lost me, especially when Alexander goes on to deliver the antagonist of the piece – the CIA! Yes, the organization that decides to fund this MIA rescue is in fact the same organization that’s trying to keep the existence of the MIAs under wraps.

Rather than the entire company it’s really just the Laos faction that’s apparently behind the MIA conspiracy, as the spooks are getting rich off the heroin trade, and the American POWs are used as slave labor! Bonham is the name of the Laos CIA chief, and at length it develops that he’s set up Z-Comm as they go into the jungle to first determine if the MIA camp exists, and if so, to free the POWs.

The five-person Z-Comm force heads into the bush, and this time out they’re even less explored than before. I think Domino, the Smurfette of the group, gets maybe two lines of dialog. But as Alexander often reminds us, all of the team save Domino are ‘Nam vets, and thus feel as if they are “returning home” now that they’re back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The most colorful character isn’t even in Z-Comm, a former ‘Nam pilot named Moondog who now makes his living flying contraband.

A father-son pair of Montagnard guides lead Z-Comm into Laos, taking them to the suspected camp. But of course it’s empty, and it’s all a setup, Vietnamese soldiers ambushing them. Cage is shot in the thigh and taken captive and Moondog is blown up, along with his Huey. Now Z-Comm is alone in the jungle and their leader himself has become a POW.

Alexander continues to hold off on the action blitz as Z-Comm splits into two groups, one to rescue Cage and the POWs (who are being held in the Long Dragon Prison Camp in Vietnam, under the sadistic command of Colonel Vinh), the other to commandeer a helicopter for escape. Meanwhile Cage recuperates from his wound and runs afoul of Vinh, who we learn gets off on having his American prisoners beaten.

When Alexander does deliver action scenes, they lack the crazed nature of his other books – in other words, no "vicious prick to Moby Dick" sort of stuff. That’s not to say a lot of Vietnamese soldiers don’t get shot to hell or blown up real good, and as expected Alexander doles out his customary gore, but it’s just a lot more restrained. In fact the lurid element is pretty much missing – let’s all recall the sadistic excesses of Swastika and Killpoint, with the rape-and-pillage sequence in the first and the terrorist-night-on-the-town in the second. There’s nothing remotely like that in MIA.

Instead, Alexander keeps forestalling the climatic action scene, with lots of repetitive moments of the members of Z-Comm gearing themselves up to do this or that. For example, when Bear and Domino attempt to steal a helicopter from a Vietnamese fort, we have several moments where each of them will think to themselves how the mission could quickly go to hell if either of them were to screw up or if one minor thing were to go wrong. It all just comes off like page-filling, and given the undue length of MIA I’m betting that’s exactly what it is.

And sadly after all of the stalling the climatic battle itself doesn’t deliver the OTT David Alexander action we expect. The POWs, ie the entire reason behind the novel, are given short shrift; Cage sees them while a prisoner at Long Dragon camp, but they have zip to do with the narrative, other than cursory mentions during the final battle of picking up weapons and blasting away at their former captors. Even Bonham’s comeuppance is anticlimatic, with Cage beating the CIA chief to a pulp instead of killing him in some inventive way.

All in all, MIA was pretty standard so far as men’s adventure novels go, and not up to the crazed heights of its predecessors. Here’s hoping the next (and final) installment picks things up.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Doomsday Warrior #8: American Glory

Doomsday Warrior #8: American Glory, by Ryder Stacy
April, 1986  Zebra Books

Picking up two weeks after the previous volume, American Glory is mostly a return to form for the Doomsday Warrior series. Rockson and team are still on their journey back to Century City in Colorado, after having rescued President Langford and his daughter Kim from the clutches of Killov in Washington, DC.

As usual though for me the biggest draw is the soap opera antics of Rockson and his two lady loves, Kim and Rona Wallender. As promised at the end of #7: American Defiance, this volume sees the at-long-last meeting of these two women, and the authors (well, author it seems, more of which below) turn this into a booklong cat fight. Nothing as ferocious as the one seen in Jason Striker #2, though; the women instead taunt one another, and Ryder Stacy of course plays up the laughs.

Before that though we must have the series-mandatory opening sequence in which Rockson and pals are almost eaten by some post-nuke mutant monstrosity. This time it’s a veritable Garden of Eden which Kim insists the group check out as they pass by it. Of course the beautiful plants soon turn horrifying as the petals become slavering jaws and the foliage attacks, the Rock Squad blowing it away with heavy weaponry. And the sequence of course ends with the also-mandatory description of how a Freefighter corpse is digested by a mutant monster.

But when the party finally arrives at Century City the soap opera fun begins. Here Rona and Kim meet at long last, and it’s instant hate. Throughout the rest of the book they trade insults, picking at one another’s defenses. Ryder Stacy really plays up on the difference between the two, comparing and contrasting the petite, 5’ 2” blue-eyed and blonde-haired Kim with her “small breasts” to Rona, who stands at 5’ 10” and 140 pounds, with her flaming red hair and “statuesque” build (we also learn that Rona wears a “form-fitting spandex bodysuit” to further show off her curves). Whereas Kim tries to act more masculine to offset her “girly” apperance, Rona goes the opposite route, doing overly “girly” things to offset her larger build, which we further learn she’s embarrassed of, suspecting that men in general are more attracted to dainty women.

Stacy for his part seems to be on Rona’s side, as Kim comes off as pretty annoying this time out. In fact I’ve never much cared for the character and hope the author(s) get around to removing her from the series. Rockson however doesn’t do anything about the situation, content to let the two women bicker from the beginning of the novel to the end. So then Rockson himself doesn’t come off very well here; I expected him to at least step in and do something about the increasing volatility of the Rona/Kim situation, but instead the “Ultimate American” just buries his head in the sand like the veritable ostrich.

The plots for each volume rarely vary, and American Glory is no exception – once again Rockson must rally the forces of Century City against Killov, who per the previous volume has taken over much of the US, having vanquished the forces of President Zhabnov. The leaders of Century City and Rath, chief of intelligence, know that this is bad news, as it’s only a matter of time before Killov, who is dedicated to death and destruction, gets hold of the hidden Russian stockpiles of nuclear missiles in the US.

The opening chapters are a bit trying; after a lengthy sequence in which the leaders of Century City debate over what to do about Killov and finally agree upon launching “K-Day,” ie the unification of all Freefighting cities against Killov’s forces on a specific day, we move on to a completely superfluous page-filler of a scene about a Pony Express rider carrying K-Day summons to one of the hidden Freefighting cities. Then when we cut back to Century City a few weeks later, we get yet another lengthy sequence in which the leaders again debate over K-Day, voicing pretty much the same opinions as in the previous scene!

But when the Rock Squad finally hits the road things pick up. Killov has sequestered himself in Fort Minsk, one of the top “Red” fortresses which has now been overtaken by the KGB. The Century City force will lead the attack on this installation, but first Rockson must play out his plan – namely, to contact Premiere Vassily in Moscow and ask him to contribute forces to the cause. Rockson’s reasoning is that since the Americans are fighting to free the Red forces from the KGB (with the idea that they are the lesser of two evils), then the least Vassily can do is help out.

After speaking to Rockson on a transatlantic radio patch, Vassily agrees to send troops; this turns out to be the Royal Sikh Army of India, a mercenary force who has never been defeated. Lead by Generals Ragnar and Panchali, the Sikhs are flown over to America, while Rockson et al continue on their way to Fort Minsk. Here the novel plays out in its customary fashion, with the group of Freefighters ecountering all sorts of obstacles in their path, from radioactive lava-spouting volcanos to a tribe of Sioux Indians who abduct them and challenge Rockson to mortal combat with their ten greatest fighters.

When Rockson’s team finally meets up with Panchali and Ragdar, who of course head up the legion that’s been sent to help invade Fort Minsk, the two Sikhs take the spotlight from recurring characters like Chen, Detroit, and even Rona and Kim. Instead the last quarter of the novel plays out like Rockson and his two Sikh pals, as first he gets drunk with them and then finally co-leads the assault on Fort Minsk with them. The other characters are lost in the shuffle – we don’t even get to see how Rona and Kim fare in battle, as they too are skirted unceremoniously from the narrative, though we do at least get to see that they come to a temporary truce on the morning of K-Day.

Even the finale plays out the same, with Rockson and Panchali racing into Fort Minsk for a showdown with Killov. Here we get a very comic bookish scene where Killov surprises the pair with shotgun barrells that pop out of hidden compartments in his desk! The KGB leader then makes an escape in a battle pod that Darth Vader would be envious of. But once again Rockson and the Freefighters are victorious, turning the forts back over to the Red army, even though as usual they’ve suffered a few (non-recurring character) losses.

According to this site, it appears that Ryder Syvertsen and Jan Stacy only collaborated for the first four volumes of Doomsday Warrior, after which Syvertsen handled the writing duties alone. So then this means I was wrong; I’d assumed Stacy wrote the clunky action stuff and Syvertsen the New Agey psychedelic stuff, when if fact it turns out to have been the opposite. And while the action in American Glory is as goofy as ever, Syvertsen here increases the gore factor (or at least brings it back), with lots of descriptions of faces getting blown off and characters blowing up in showers of blood and guts.

But in hindsight it’s clear that Stacy left after #4: Bloody America, as the metaphysical stuff dropped off for the most part after that volume – though luckily with this volume Syvertsen appears to be bringing it back, as there are two psychedlic sequences, one with Rockson in telepathic communion with the Glowers (who tell him they are too weak to aid him in battle anymore) and another with a drug-fueled Killov astrally voyaging into the black heart of space. One thing that is missing this time is the obligatory sex scene – given that Kim and Rona both travel with Rockson to keep each other away from him, this means that for once the Doomsday Warrior fails to score!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Possession Of Jessica Young

The Possession Of Jessica Young, by Russ Martin
August, 1982  Tor Books

Another of those novels with so much potential but so little delivery, The Possession Of Jessica Young is the first of a trilogy of “erotic horror” novels about a global satanic “Organization” and its battles against a pair of sisters who are the only ones with the mental powers to fight them. But what could’ve been a twisted or even lurid thrill ride instead has about as much bite as an ABC After School Special.

I first learned about Russ Martin’s books thanks to Will Erickson’s post on Too Much Horror Fiction. Along with the covers for most of Martin’s paperbacks, Will included a link to JR Parz’s Erotic Mind Control Novels review site, in which Parz regaled Russ Martin’s novels as practically the ultimate in erotic horror. And others must agree, because strangely enough Martin’s novels aren’t easily come by, in particular the finale of this loose trilogy, 1984’s The Education Of Jennifer Parrish.

So all told I was really anticipating some lurid thrills, especially given the high recommendations of Parz, who one might say is a little enthusiastic about this particular horror subgenre of “erotic mind control.” But man, talk about underwhelming. As I read The Possession Of Jessica Young I kept wondering if I was just missing something, because rather than being “erotic horror” it was moreso tepid, padded, and uneventful. Plus the protagonist was an idiot, which didn’t help matters.

Long story short, The Possession Of Jessica Young is about the titular protagonist’s escape from the Organization, a globe-spanning consortium of satanists who use erotic mind control to enslave their victims. Jessica, we gradually learn, was born with psychic powers, able to control thoughts and to even hop into the brains of others and control their bodies. The tale is told in two ongoing segments, “Then” and “Now.” In the former we learn how, starting in 1980, Jessica first ran afoul of the Organization. In the latter we see that now, in 1983, she is on the run from them, having killed her husband and child while under the mental control of Organization bigwig Stephen Abbott, who by the way has now latched onto Jessica’s teenaged sister, Heather.

Martin walks a strange line here, for in the majority of the “Then” section (and the entirety of the “Now” section for Heather), Jessica is under erotic mind control. Even though she’s happily married (to a successful horror novelist!) and has a good life, Jessica finds herself compelled to seek out Abbott. As the novel progresses and she learns how evil Abbott is, she is still unable to break away from him, constantly running back to him and doing whatever he orders her to do. It becomes a very frustrating experience for the reader to endure.

What makes it worse is that young Heather’s story in the “Now” section is exactly the same as Jessica’s story in the “Then” section! So basically you read the same story twice, back to back. Just as Jessica is torn away from her family until she acts like some robot who can think only of Stephen Abbott, so too does Heather drop out of school and run away from home to become the willing slave of her master Stephen Abbott. And it’s all just so tediously told; over and over we are informed how Jessica and Heather are unable to cast the magnetic Stephen Abbott from their thoughts, how they are more than eager to do anything to please him.

This of course leads to all of that “erotic horror” stuff, as the Organization in general and Abbott in particular are fond of keeping women in sexual servitude in their mansions (of course, all high ranking members of the Organization are ultra-wealthy). But Martin never gives the details of this; instead we read as the female characters are degraded into prancing around in maid uniforms and being scolded and slapped for the most minor of infractions, yet always chomping at the bit to spend time with Abbott, just to be near him. On and on and on the whole thing goes, padding out its barebones storyline with needless exposition and introspection.

The book is almost as overwritten as Eric Lustbader’s The Ninja. Martin is very fond of adverbs and the words “rather” and “quite,” all of which serves to make the book feel as stuffy as something from the 19th century. This stuffiness sometimes leads to unintentionally hilarious lines, like, “After that horrid day when she had been kidnapped and raped, things had all turned lopsided.” And for a novel of “erotic horror,” where the hell’s the sex?? The book is more pseudo-literature than the lurid binge I wanted…and what few sex scenes that do occur are neutered by the fussy and stuffy prose. Look, here’s an example of what passes for a sex scene in The Possession Of Jessica Young:

If there were an Olympics for lovemaking, Jessica would think later, then Stephen Abbott would surely hold a dozen gold medals. A dozen times during their encounter she thought he had raised her to the highest pitch of physical awareness, and each time he brought her up another increment. When at last he was ready to enter her she opened her thighs wide, swallowing him hungrily. Her pleasure was astoundingly swift and intense. She had heard of multiple orgasms, but had never experienced them before. Now her capacity was inexhaustible. Even physical exhaustion did little to slake it.

I’ll give you all a few moments to cool off. Personally I think if you’re going to write a sex scene, you should go all out. I mean, there’s no way to write a sex scene and not have it come out as comical or purple-prosed at least to some degree, so why even bother with the pretensions? It’s for this reason that I’ll always prefer straight-up horror pulp like Shamballah, where the writer isn’t concerned at all about getting too extreme, and there are no delusions of being “respectable.”

But there’s a bigger problem with The Possession Of Jessica Young: its titular protagonist is a complete idiot. Let me ask you – if you had just escaped from a globe-spanning satanic organization that had previously kept you in mental bondage, and if you had also just learned that said organization has now discovered your whereabouts and sent an assassin after you, would you just chalk it off and figure “well, maybe now they’ll leave me alone?”

Or what if you had a sister who suddenly went missing, and you were informed that prior to her disappearance she was acting strange and flighty, displaying all the same symptons you yourself did when you were under the mental subjugation of the globe-spanning satanic organization – when “just happening” to run into your oddly-behaving sister a few days after learning of her disappearance, would you chalk off her odd behaivor as just “teenager stuff?”

And yet, that’s exactly the nonsensical story Martin doles out. We eventually (and I do mean “eventually”) learn that Jessica finally became so in Stephen Abbott’s thrall that she killed her own husband and child (long story short, after Jessica’s failed attempt at escape, Abbot punished her by forcing her into the deed). But after this she managed to escape, fleeing from New York to Los Angeles. Now, months later, she works as a waitress and has a romantic affair with a cop named Jake Whittinger, a total louse who still lusts after his ex-wife.

Jessica knows that a satanic organization is out there, and that it wants her, but even after she dispatches an assassin sent to get her (killing him telepathically a la Scanners), she basically just shrugs it off and hopes that maybe the Organization will get the message and leave her alone! And meanwhile back in New York Stephen Abbott oversees the mental enslavery of Heather, who is soon sent, brainwashed, to rope in her sister. And when Heather just happens to show up in LA, acting completely different, even coming on to Jessica’s boyfriend, Jessica still just shrugs it off as growing pains or whatever!

What’s worse is that it isn’t until she’s again ensnared by the Organization that it even dawns on Jessica that her sister is not only under their control, but also that she’s the one who set Jessica up! Do you see what I mean? It’s really, really hard to read a novel in which your protagonist is this stupid, not to mention under “erotic mind control.” It’s like you’re reading an entire novel about a puppet. (Actually two puppets, if you factor in Heather’s storyline.)

And you’d think after 316 pages of small print there would at least be some sort of resolution, but nope! Instead it all comes off like the first installment of a series, and if online reviews are any indication there never is any resolution, even after two more damn volumes. Nothing’s resolved, the Organization’s master plan isn’t unveiled, and most damnably of all Stephen Abbott doesn’t get his comeuppance and indeed is still alive and well at novel’s end.

The finale does at least end on an interesting note, with Jessica being lobotomized(!) by the Organization; astrally escaping from her corporeal form, Jessica ends up possessing the body of her own sister! I guess her logic is that since Heather’s already under mind control, this way at least the person controlling her body will have Heather’s best interests in mind. But anyway this is how the novel ends, Jessica now in Heather’s body (and thankfully here she kills at least one of the villains, the grating young Organization gigolo Ron), escaping Stephen Abbott’s mansion to plot her vengeance.

Like a fool I picked up all three volumes before reading a single one, so now, once I build up the stamina, I’ll need to move on to the second installment, The Obsession Of Sally Wing. Bizarrely enough, these books are collectibles, particularly the last one, The Education Of Jennifer Parrish, likely because that one only had the one printing. Luckily I got my copies for cheap, and I advise that if you do decide to seek these books out, see that you are able to do the same – don’t do anything crazy like pay a lot of money for them.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Destroyer #14: Judgment Day

The Destroyer #14: Judgment Day, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
February, 1974  Pinnacle Books

I enjoyed this volume of The Destroyer a lot more than the previous one I read. This time Sapir and Murphy make no attempt to write an actual men’s adventure novel, thus there are no unwieldy or arbitrary moments in which they must insert an action scene. Instead Judgment Day works as a straight-up satire from beginning to end, lampooning corporate culture.

This is done primarily through the character Blake Corbish, a thirty-something executive at IDC (read: IBM) who is a company man through and through, to the point where he speaks solely in “corp speak” and thinks only of advancing his own career. He’s the antagonist of the tale, further sign of how at odds The Destroyer is from others in this genre; the closest comparison I could think of would be TNT, which itself was a spoof of the genre conventions (though I enjoyed it a whole lot more).

As Judgment Day opens Corbish is moving in on the mysterious data mine in Folcroft Sanitarium of upstate New York; Corbish has learned that the computers there store a wealth of information, information beyond even that possessed by the FBI or other government agencies. Little does Corbish know that it’s actually the secret HQ of CURE. At any rate Corbish, a former Special Forces commando, has been tasked by IDC CEO TL Broon to find out what’s going on at Folcroft and to forcibly bring it into the IDC fold.

The titular Destroyer meanwhile is busily going about killing off IDC executives; Remo’s latest mission, courtesy Harold W. Smith, boss of CURE. Remo and Chiun are mostly supporting characters this time out, with Smith himself the true protagonist. Sapir and Murphy give the notoriously cold-blooded Smith the spotlight, having him captured, tortured, and left to die by Corbish; once Smith is able to free himself, he sets about gaining his vengeance, and it’s all very satisfyingly delivered.

Corbish gets the jump on Smith and takes him to a remote cabin in California, where at great length he breaks the old WWII spy. Smith tells Corbish all about CURE; at first Corbish thinks this is all just yet more bullshit to keep from telling the truth about what’s at Folcroft, but eventually he realizes that this CURE stuff is the truth. Believing the old man to be at death’s door, Corbish leaves the battered and bloodied Smith locked up in an old bomb cellar in the cabin and heads back for New York, to take over CURE.

The organization is so super-secret that only Smith, Remo, Chiun, the President, and now Corbish know about it, so Corbish is free to waltz into Folcroft, deliver the instructions Smith gave him for taking over the sanitarium, and thus become the new head of CURE. Remo’s caught in the middle; he’s never much cared for Smith and thinks the new guy might be a nice change of pace. Remo doesn’t come off too sharp here; though he is initially distrustful of Corbish, Remo basically brushes it off and plows on under the new management, instilling himself with patriotic/”good for the country” thoughts.

Chiun of course knows something is wrong, but instead of taking action he spends the majority of the novel sitting in various hotel rooms and belittling Remo, while working on a history of “Emperor” Smith. The Remo/Chiun verbal sparring is prevalent throughout Judgment Day and is as enjoyable as ever. There’s even a somewhat touching moment where Chiun states that Remo is the best student a teacher could hope for – not that this stops him from continuing to berate him.

I guess we can give Remo a little slack, though, given that he has no knowledge of Corbish being an IDC executive – Corbish merely presents himself as “the new man” and starts sending Remo out on jobs Corbish himself thinks of. Part of the comedy of the novel comes through Corbish putting Remo on tasks that are outside of Remo’s training or skillsets; there’s a great recurring joke with Chiun, who calls Corbish “Mr. Garbage,” constantly telling Remo that soon enough Corbish will be asking Remo to take out the trash or other menial tasks.

Since this time the authors aren’t trying to write an action novel, there are no forced combat scenes; Remo murders a few IDC executives (though to quote Schwarzenegger in True Lies, “They were all bad”) and Smith runs over a henchman Corbish sends after him. But other than that Judgment Day is free of any action scenes. There isn’t even any sex, though Remo does sleep with Holly Broon, the calculating and manipulative daughter of TL Broon. This scene too is played for laughs, as Remo takes the young woman moments after she’s tried to kill him, in vengeance for Remo’s having murdered TL Broon (at Corbish’s orders, of course).

Sapir and Murphy do a great job of juggling the comedy with the mounting suspense, as Smith works his way closer and closer to Folcroft. Since Remo and Chiun can’t be contacted and CURE must be kept secret at all costs, Smith must use his wits to get hold of Remo and to gain his vengeance on Corbish. It all comes to a head with another funny scene where Remo and Chiun finally meet up with Smith in a hotel room; Remo has been ordered by Corbish to kill Smith, but Smith boobytraps his room and talks some sense into Remo.

It is funny though that Smith is just as emotionless in his own way as Corbish is; despite having been abducted and tortured for the past few weeks, Smith doesn’t even try to contact his wife, who has no idea where he is. And when Smith gains his inevitable revenge and resumes control of CURE, there are no obligatory “emotional” scenes of reunion or anything of the sort; true to form, Smith immediately begins berating Remo.

Anyway I wasn’t really into #10: Terror Squad, but it would appear that these later volumes are better, likely because Pinnacle backed off and stopped insisting that Sapir and Murphy turn in an action-heavy Executioner-style series, and instead just let them do their own thing.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Traveler #2: Kingdom Come

Traveler #2: Kingdom Come, by D.B. Drumm
July, 1984  Dell Books

Yet another post-nuke pulp series from the ‘80s, Traveler is one I remember checking out from my local library as a kid (they actually had men’s adventure novels on a spinner rack!). I think I read the first volume, but they didn’t have any others and so I never bothered buying the later volumes at WaldenBooks, as even then I was a geek and demanded continuity; if I was missing a volume, I said to hell with it.

Anyway the series ran for 13 volumes and was written by Ed Naha and my man John Shirley, both of them credited under the house name “D.B. Drumm.” According to this site, Shirley wrote volumes #2-6 and 8, and Naha wrote the rest. Given my enjoyment of Shirley’s writing I finally decided to track down these books, starting with his first volume; I’ll read the Shirley installments first and then go back and read the Naha volumes. In the meantime though you can check out Zwolf, Marty McKee, and this funny overview for a review of Naha’s #1: First You Fight, which by all accounts sounds like a Yojimbo/Fistful Of Dollars sort of riff.

Kingdom Come though has a lot more going for it, and given that it was Shirley’s first volume it actually reads like the first volume of the series proper. For one, Shirley gives us background info on our titular protagonist and also informs us that the novel takes place in the year 2004. In 2004 I was sitting in a cubicle doing the email marketing for JCPenney, but damned if I wouldn’t have rather been driving around a post-nuke world, blowing away mutants and “roadrats” and picking up busty post-apocalypse babes.

Shirley further informs us that the nuclear war occurred in 1989, and was instigated by President Andrew Frayling (100% not based on Ronald Reagan), a mostly senile former actor-turned president who launched a nuclear war on Russia for no more reason than his own contrariness. But even before the war our protagonist had issues. Back then he was known as Lt. Kiel Paxton, and he was a badass commando, in Force Recon and the like. During a mission in the Central American country El Hiagura (100% not based on Nicaragua), Paxton was doused with experimental neurotoxins, which left him with sort-of superhero powers: a sixth sense which allows him to key in on people around him, but which sometimes overloads his system to the point where he can’t cope.

Immediately after this mission the war hit, and Paxton’s wife and young child were killed in the catastrophe; Paxton, surviving due to being out of the strike zones down in Central America, renamed himself “Traveler” and hit the road in the “Meat Wagon,” a customized van that’s geared up with heavy weaponry. Denying himself memories of his past life and his family, he thinks of himself solely as a nameless wanderer, trying to stay alive just so he can gain vengeance upon Major Vallone, the man who lead Traveler into the ambush that doused him with neurotoxins. Now in his late 30s, Traveler looks just as depicted on the cover, complete with the ‘80s-mandatory headband.

I enjoy Shirley’s Specialist series, but judging just from this one volume, his work on Traveler is a lot better. For one you can tell his heart is more in it, but also given the post-nuke vibe Shirley is free to indulge in his fondness for sci-fi and horror. The latter is especially prevalent, with one scene in particular, where Traveler and his companions encounter concrete-eating mutants, seeming to come straight out of a horror novel.

The plot of this novel concerns Traveler escorting Princess Sandy of the Kingdom of Wichita to Kansas City, where she is to marry the son of Baron Moorcock. Yes, it’s all very goofy and wacky, and I haven’t even mentioned the gigantic Siamese cat Ronin and its Shaolin monk owner Nicholas Shumi! But it’s this very wackiness that allows Shirley to write some unhinged and enjoyable material. If you’re turned off by the customary right-wing slant of most men’s adventure novels, you should check out Traveler, as not only is it a thorough skewering of right-wing posturing, but it also doles out all of the expected tropes of the genre, so you get all that and more.

Traveler just happens upon the Wichita delegation as they’re being attacked by “roadrats:” basically, the leather-clad barbarians as seen in Road Warrior and other post-nuke films. Traveler tries to drive on by, even though he clearly sees that these people are about to be killed to the man, and the sole (of course beautiful) woman with them will doubtlessly be raped over and over. It seems that part of the series thrust is Traveler’s denying his own basic goodness; he wants to shut off all hummanity and be one with this dead world.

But of course he turns right back around and blasts the shit out of the roadrats. When Shirley’s on form he can knock out a hell of an action novel, and Kingdom Come is one of his best. It’s really just one long chase scene, but Shirley’s enthusiasm barrels you right along. Unlike in some of his lesser Specialist novels, there’s no point where it comes off like padded and boring. One thing the two series share though is incredibly graphic sex and violence, as well as protagonists who give their enemy no quarter. Traveler’s just as merciless as Jack Sullivan; there’s a memorable bit where he cuts off a roadrat’s head and uses it to psych out the guy’s partners.

After hearing their bizarre story – Sandy is to marry the son of the Baron so as to unite the kingdoms of Kansas City and Wichita – Traveler agrees to escort the group in exchange for fuel and ammunition. With the group there’s Thorne, who acts as the head of the delegation, and Pearlman, a mercenary who serves as Traveler’s backup throughout the novel. During the journey Traveler and crew are constantly attacked by roadrats and bikers on their way to Kansas City, thus leading to many action scenes. Traveler knows something is up, given the training and weaponry the roadrats have, all of which is unusual given how the various groups are notorious for not getting along.

Here the right-wing/Reagan skewering comes into play, as we learn that President Frayling is secretly trying to prevent the unification of Kansas City and Wichita. Now in Las Vegas, Frayling is surrounded by sycophants and a personal guard of soldiers referred to as “Glory Boys.” Shirely writes the scene with tongue firmly in cheek as a doddering Frayling stumbles over furniture and has trouble remembering things while discussing his plans with an assistant named Beaman. We also learn that Traveler’s old enemy Major Vallone heads up the Glory Boys, and Vallone himself has been tasked with stopping the Wichita delegation from reaching Kansas City.

We get another taut sequence where Glory Boy gunships come after the Meat Wagon; this leads to the horror-novel bit mentioned above, where Traveler heads into the long-abandoned Genectics Experimentation Center, an underground facility which turns out to be the home to mutant creatures which eat through concrete. Other mutants in Kingdom Come include that giant feline, Ronin; its owner, Nicholas Shumi, greets Traveler with some mystical blather that the two are destined to meet again someday.

But the most interesting mutant by far is the Black Rider, an infamous biker-ninja type who is introduced into the series with this volume and will serve as another of Traveler’s archenemies in the forthcoming installments. The Black Rider is Vallone’s top henchman, and is responsible for uniting the roadrats and bikers in the effort to stop the Wichita delegation.

The Black Rider was truly black. Not black like an African. There was nothing Negroid in his features. He was a mutant. He was jet-black, everywhere, including the palms of his hands and the bottoms of his feet and both thin lips of his expressionless mouth. There were no whites to his eyes, and no iris. His eyes were entirely black, like orbs of onyx. He had no hair, not even eyebrows. He had no ears; in place of them were membranes which vibrated visibly when there was a loud noise near him. But for this, and except for a profound proximity-sense much like Traveler’s, he was ostensibly human.

Strangely the Black Rider also wears black, Shirley describing his Road Warrior-approved black biker leather, but personally I’d go for orange or something for a little contrast. Anyway the Black Rider only appears late in the tale, and mostly bosses around his roadster minions, however we learn that like a true El Cid he personally leads his men into combat – though instead of on a horse it’s on a Harley hog, of course. When Traveler sees the Black Rider from the Kansas City battlements he instantly knows that this black mutant is his enemy, and later when Traveler and Pearlman infiltrate the roadrats camp they abduct him, though of course he eventually escapes to return another day.

And it wouldn’t be a Shirley novel without his patented XXX-rated sex scenes; the obligatory Traveler/Sandy shagging develops naturally for the most part, with the blonde goddess Sandy taking an instant interest in Traveler, but Traveler himself ignoring her as he’s been trying for 15 years now to shut off all feelings. But when the sparks fly Shirley goes all out, with the scene here even more graphic than any in the Specialist books I’ve yet read – a scene complete with terms like “clitoral hood,” which I have to admit was a new one for me. See, you can learn things from these books!!

Shirley also appears to be carefully setting up future storylines. For one there’s the aforementioned Nicholas Shumi and giant cat; the monk makes it clear that the usual “prophecy” stuff has foretold that Traveler will do something important someday. But once he’s deposited Sandy in Wichita – after several action and chase scenes, internal betrayal, and Sandy’s frequent attempts to run off with him – Traveler tells the girl they’ll no doubt meet again and then hits the road, blasting the Doors’s “Roadhouse Blues” on the Meat Wagon tape deck.

What I love about these post-nuke books is how they portray basically a future version of the ‘80s. I think the jury’s out on if the future we actually got was any better.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Behind The Door

Behind The Door, by Frank Lambirth
January, 1988  Popular Library

Like Firefight, this is another obscure novel I learned about via Michael Newton’s How To Write Action Adventure Novels. And also like Firefight, Newton discusses Behind The Door in a negative light; specifically, a “disgusting” scene where the female protagonist becomes sexually aroused while she watches someone getting raped.

Sadly, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that as soon as I read this, I made a note to self to get Behind The Door as soon as possible. Funnily enough, Newton failed to mention that the rape scene occurred between two female characters, and also that the aroused protagonist, Elizabeth Shea, was drugged out of her mind at the time. In other words, the scene was nowhere as lurid as Newton claimed it to be. Though don’t get me wrong, the novel is pretty lurid, however this aspect is a bit dilluted given author Frank Lambirth’s lofty tone and the deadbeat protagonist he gives us.

For me the biggest failing of this novel is Elizabeth Shea. Not that she’s necessarily a bad character, she’s just so blasé and boring. She’s like the heroine of a Gothic novel, forever gnashing her teeth in fear and confusion, but gullible and trusting to a fault. In other words, she’s too nice a person for the sadistic tale Lambirth has thrust her in, and maybe that’s the point, but after a while I wanted a character who would jump into the exploitative proceedings – and let me tell you, there’s some exploitative stuff here, from satanic black masses to drug-fueled orgies to murder on a mass scale. There’s even a psilocybin drug trip, like something out of a Terence McKenna lecture!

Then again, in a way Elizabeth is a welcome change from the now-mandatory “tough chick” you’ll encounter in books, movies, and tv. But still I feel a modern horror reader would get a little annoyed with Elizabeth, who spends the majority of Behind The Door cowering in her bedroom or running breathlessly from danger – that is, when she isn’t fondling herself and imagining what it would be like to be double-teamed by two men or to have sex with another woman. On second thought, Elizabeth Shea is awesome!

Anyway, we open with a random murder on a desolate Arkansas road, a sequence Lambirth will not refer back to until the very end of the novel. From there we are introduced to Elizabeth, who carries the brunt of the narrative. Long story short, Elizabeth is the admin for a somewhat-shady entreprenneur, and at this man’s behest Elizabeth is in a car speeding through the night roads of Arkansas on their way to square out a money-lending deal.

In addition to Elizabeth there’s Meredith, the entreprenneur’s coke-sniffing daughter, and Scott, the bodyguard. The group is rattled and exhausted, having endured a long plane ride here in bumpy weather. A thunderstorm rages as they barrel through the twisting mountain roads, and the car crashes; Elizabeth is the only uninjured passenger. The local cops arrive, including good-looking deputy Cobb Kendall, and get them an ambulance. But there’s no hospital nearby and due to the injuries of some of the passengers it’s decided to call local Skystone, which the cops describe to be a private clinic.

Skystone is more like a fortress, with massive gates (which are later revealed to be electrified) surrounding it. Elizabeth sits in shock in the emergency room as she watches the small group of doctors and nurses work over her injured companions. Here we meet Dr. Mainwaring, who comes off as the customary old and concerned doctor of tradition, as well as Mrs. Eddy, an older lady who wears lots of makeup and who apparently has a brick shithouse bod. Also there’s nurse Shane Covington, a gorgeous blonde with mesmerizing eyes.

Finally the fun begins, as Mainwaring insists on Elizabeth staying in a room to be monitored, in case she will suffer some post-crash trauma. Filled with drugs and left in a well-furnished room that doesn’t look like any hospital room she’s ever been in before, Elizabeth will spend the remainder of the novel in a perpetual state of drugged terror. Separated from her coworkers she’s left at the mercy of Mainwaring and staff, who don’t seem to be in a hurry to let her know what’s going on.

Mainwaring has her on some good shit, and Elizabeth wakes up on her first night completely out of it. She hears noises down the deserted hallway, no one will respond to her calls, and her phone doesn’t work. She stumbles down the hall, into another of the rooms…only to come across nurse Shane going down on another pretty young nurse! This is the scene Newton got so upset about; it ends with Elizabeth pawing herself as she stumbles back to her bedroom, wondering what it would be like to trade places with the pretty young nurse.

The first half of Behind The Door plays this slow game, of Elizabeth gradually realizing that something’s not right about Skystone, and then Mainwaring coming in to tell her everything’s fine before shooting her up with more drugs. Meanwhile we’re informed that Elizabeth’s boss has died, but still Elizabeth is kept from Scott and Meredith. It isn’t until the place almost burns down (due to a pyromaniac old lady) that things begin to kick into gear.

I mentioned how naïve Elizabeth is; even after waking up in another drugged stupor one night to discover her wing on fire and various psychos stumbling around and fighting each other, the next morning she still gives benefit the doubt as she wanders around the now-empty and trashed hospital, figuring some natural calamity or even a nuclear war might’ve happened. Then she finds Scott tied up and thrown in a corpse locker; he reveals he was thrown there by the inmates.

Previous to this the novel has been a quiet sort of horror, but now it plunges straight into terror. Scott and Elizabeth search the deserted hospital grounds, finding corpses everywhere. Trying to escape they discover that the fence is electrified and it fully surrounds Skystone. In another creepy sequence they come upon the old mansion on the grounds in which the hospital staff lives; Scott ventures in alone, finding about 30 or so corpses, the people murdered in their beds. There’s some unintentional humor though, for when they return to Skystone, all other avenues blocked, Scott and Meredith look through the files and discover that Skystone is really…an insane asylum!! Funnily enough, this gets more reaction from them than all of the hacked up corpses.

There’s a massive red door which is locked and splits off Elizabeth’s wing of Skystone to the other half; we learn that this is the violent ward. Lambirth runs a parallel storyline featuring Cobb Kendall, the local deputy, as he figures out that something’s wrong at Skystone. Despite pushback from his “stupid chief” sheriff, Cobb hooks up with Dr. Andy Witherspoon, a local doctor who worked at Skystone until quitting recently; the doctor informs Cobb that he quit because the head of Skystone decided to bring in more violent inmates, the last straw being Paul St. Denis, who apparently makes Ted Bundy look like Mr. Rogers. Denis is the one “behind the door,” and there’s an awesome reveal when Cobb tells Witherspoon that he spoke to a “Dr. Mainwaring” at Skystone, and Witherspoon tells Cobb that not only is Mainwaring not a doctor, he’s also an inmate!

Cobb now knows that the lunatics are truly running the asylum, but Lambirth stalls with lots of page-filler about the deputy trying to get into Skystone and eventually renting a helicopter. The more compelling stuff of course is in Skystone, but again the trash quotient is limited by Lambirth’s choice of a protagonist, as Elizabeth closes herself off in her room while Scott tries to find Meredith. In fact, most of the sordid stuff in Behind The Door happens “off screen,” relayed to Elizabeth through dialog or with her coming upon the aftermath.

The final quarter of the novel really ramps things up, and it’s a shame it didn’t happen sooner. Elizabeth is fully brought into the fold of Sykstone, and we see that Mainwaring has fought to keep her alive because he believes in his deluded mind that she’s his daughter. Nurse Eddy is revealed to be a wealthy matron named Tina Duchin, who was sent to Skystone due to her maddened descent into satanism – satanism of the sacrificing, bloodthirsty sort. She’s turned the hospital into her new temple, running black masses/orgies and sacrificing surviving nurses. The weird-eyed, lunatic lesbian Shane Covington is her henchwoman, notorious for slicing up any female who turns down her advances.

Lambirth works everything up to a feverish pitch with Cobb and his two-man team choppering in to Skystone for a daylight rescue, while Elizabeth meets up with a young man she assumes to be another survivor but who in reality is Paul St. Denis. For some reason though Lambirth keeps most of the violence and bloodshed in the background; even when Nurse Eddy/Tina comes after Paul, fresh from her latest black mass and armed with a knife, Lambirth denies us the outcome, having Elizabeth once again rush from the scene. Here we also get the psilocybin material, when one of the inmates forcibly injects Elizabeth with the drug and then delivers the unforgettable line, “I’m gonna fuck your stuff, baby.”

Have no fear, though, for Cobb and the good doctor finally arrive with guns blazing. At least here Lambirth gives us some action, though by this point most of the Skystone inmates have killed themselves off in various squabbles and disagreements gone bad. With one final reveal (well handled and foreshadowed at various points in the narrative), Lambirth brings the novel to a haunting close. Perhaps the craziest thing about the novel is that, for a girl driven to sexual madness via drugs and the wanton hedonism surrounding her, not to mention the crazed orderlies who chase after her in the denoument, not once does Elizabeth actually have sex in the novel!

In fact, Behind The Door somehow manages to walk the line between outright lurid material and prudish conservatism…there’s lots of weird stuff, creepy stuff, exploitative stuff, but the way Lambirth writes it, it comes off more like a “regular” novel instead of a total descent into depravity. And while I enjoyed his writing, I still think a crazier, more memorable novel could’ve been gleaned from the sensationalistic plot and characters he has given us. So wrapping up, I’d give the novel a recommendation, but one with reservations. Thanks again though to Michael Newton for letting us know about it!

Finally, this is one of those awesome paperback originals that has a fancy stepback cover; here’s the inner painting:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Psycho Squad #2: The Torturer

Psycho Squad #2: The Torturer, by Rick Dade
March, 1989  Berkley Books

If anything this second and final volume of Psycho Squad proves why the series was so short lived. Whereas the first volume spent way too many pages introducing one crazy cult member after another, this second installment at least focuses a bit more on its protagonists…that is, when it isn’t barraging the reader with an army of minor characters and unrelated subplots.

I still haven’t figured out who “Rick Dade” was, but it would appear The Torturer was written by the same person as Execution Night. I mean, it seems so for the most part, with the same mostly-good writing that nevertheless POV-hops, even occasionally lapsing into omniscient perspective (ie, “Someone fired at Flint. Flint didn’t know it, but the man shooting at him was one of Smokey’s thugs.”) But then there seems to be a lack of knowledge of what came in that first volume..the author only vaguely mentioning how the Squad got together, and not following up on any characters or events from Execution Night. Even worse, Flint never once uses his Eliminator “rocket gun,” and in fact never even mentions it!

But anyway, I can just imagine Dade, whoever he was, breaking out in a flop sweat as he tries to figure out how to put a novel together. “I’ll just keep introducing characters and situations! Th-that’s how you write a novel, isn’t it??” I honestly had to jot down notes to keep up with the swarm of characters and subplots. There’s no pickup from the previous novel, and indeed we never learn how much time has passed since Execution Night. We’re just tossed right in, and have to try to keep up.

At any rate Psycho Squad leader Jack Flint has upheld his vow on the final page of that previous volume to hunt down serial killers across the nation, using the unlimited funding of his boss, Anton Vraczek (who doesn’t even appear this time around). Thus Flint heads down to Miami, certain that the recently-discovered, mutilated corpse of a young woman named Linda Duquesne is the work of the Torturer, a serial killer Flint’s been tracking.

One of the few things that is picked up from the previous novel is the brush-off Psycho Squad member JJ Santiago is given; as in Execution Night he has a mere cameo role, not even appearing in the narrative until the final quarter. So rather than the titular trio heading down to Miami, it’s just Flint and Dr. Larry Mace, who despite suffering the horrific loss of his pregnant wife last time out is pretty much back to normal, though we learn he’s taken to packing a gun these days.

Immediately upon Flint and Mace’s arrival in Miami, Dade begins to hammer us with newly-introduced characters, and he won’t stop until the very last page. So first off Flint meets up with redheaded reporter Gloria Quarles, who of course is suitably gorgeous, though as with the previous volume there isn’t even a hint of sex in the narrative. She’s researching the Torturer case as well, and Flint trades info with her, as well as banter. Gloria acts moreso as Flint’s partner during the novel than Mace or Santiago do; strangely, Dade rarely gives us a scene feautring the Squad all together, as if he’s uncomfortable with the series concept.

Meanwhile Mace buddies up with an old colleague who now works as a Dade County medical examiner, looking over the corpse of a cop who tried to research the Linda Duquesne case. But instead of being the taut serial killer tale all of this introductory material makes you expect, The Torturer actually becomes a conspiracy/blackmail deal about rogue federal agents running guns into Central America, and the titular murderer turns out to be superfluous to the entire novel! And since Dade only gradually builds up this storyline, the novel is rather slow-going.

Action scenes sporadically liven things up here and there, to more of an extent than in Execution Night. For one Flint and Gloria are taken captive by goons who work for Rollo Prouty, a modeling agency owner who, we eventually learn, is blackmailing various Miami notables with a storehouse of files containing private and exploitable info. But Dade ruins all tension with Flint and Gloria being rescued at the last second by some guy in an orange Checker – a grubby private eye named Chub Odell who serves to take up more pages, with his own go-nowhere subplot.

Gradually (and I do mean gradually) all roads lead to Major Nordlinger, a shady military man who is trying to supply guns to Central America. Colonel North, I mean Major Nordlinger, employs two rogue Vice cops named Weems and Yates, merciless and humorless goons who have made a veritable kingdom for themselves in Miami. Cue many scenes of these guys harrassing Flint and Mace and then reporting back to North, I mean Nordlinger. Oh, and there’s a dude named Smokey Powers who operates out of the Florida wetlands, a guy who leads his own redneck army and is trying to get into the gunrunning business himself.

And I haven’t even mentioned Delgado, partner of the cop who was killed when trying to investigate Linda Duquesne’s murder. He plays a large role in early pages before being uncerimoniously brushed off toward the end. There’s also the infamous Borja, a sadist who ran a Nicaraguan death squad years ago but now lives in Miami, and who is enemies with Smokey Powers. When JJ Santiago finally shows up on page 142, it’s to go undercover as one of Borja’s thugs – and even here Dade introduces yet another half-assed subplot, revealing in the span of a page that Santiago has an old enemy here in Miami and so blows the dude away in a club to get Borja’s attention!

Hey, remember the Torturer? You might, but Dade has forgotten all about his titular villain; whereas Execution Night at least stayed true to its “men’s adventure meets horror” vibe, The Torturer forgets all about the horror stuff and focuses instead on a barely-there plot about gunrunning and displaced Nicaraguan rulers. What’s worse is the action scenes, when they go down, are dispensed with quickly, save that is for a climatic assault on Borja’s fortress compound, a chaotic scene which sees Smokey Powers’s goons attacking just as Flint and Mace have been captured.

Dade likely didn’t write any other men’s adventure novels in the ‘80s, as there’s none of the gun-porn the decade demanded. Guns are “guns,” and that’s it. Flint still uses his .44 Bulldog from the previous book, but other than a mention of Santiago picking up a dropped Uzi and using it to “ventilate” a few Borja thugs, this sequence is underwhelming from an action-series standpoint. It even skirts unintentional comedy, as Dade kills off swarms of characters he’s either just introduced or barely developed.

Anyway the Torturer appears on maybe two or three pages of the entire book, and not till the very end does Flint announce that he’s “figured out” who the killer is – not that there was a trail of clues for us readers to follow. In fact the book ends on the lamest of Scooby Doo cop-outs, with a “surprise reveal” that’s very hard to buy, followed by a quick wrap-up.

And that was it – there were no more adventures for the Psycho Squad. It’s too bad, because the series had potential, but it would appear this potential was squandered a mere two volumes in. And I’m probably reading more into it than intended, but it seemed to me that seeds were even planted for future volumes, namely due to a mid-novel mention that the murderer of Anton Vraczek’s wife and child ten years ago was never caught. Seems only natural that a future installment of Psycho Squad would’ve featured the trio hunting this killer down, but it was not to be.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Penetrator #19: Panama Power Play

The Penetrator #19: Panama Power Play, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Whereas his previous volume of The Penetrator was almost surreal in its focus on action, this time out Mark Roberts attempts to go for more of a plot-heavy approach. It doesn’t always succeed, though, making Panama Power Play come off as a bit padded at times, very much lacking the spark of Demented Empire.

Roberts continues to dole out the metaphysical stuff with an opening which sees Mark “Penetrator” Hardin engaging in some past-life regression with his Indian mentor, David Red Eagle. This entire sequence seems lifted from a Western novel Roberts might’ve been working on at the time, with cowboys taking out Hardin’s Indian tribe. It kind of goes on for a while, too. Finally though Hardin emerges from the trip with the understanding that he should not hate his enemies, and instead look upon his vigilante activities moreso from a “maintaining the karmic balance” sort of view. I mean, he’s still supposed to kill them, just not hate them!

From this we clunkily go into the volume’s threat – one Norbert Briscoe, a tycoon who has escaped America, where he’s wanted on various white-collar charges. Now living in Costa Rica, Briscoe plans to take over the Panama Canal, funding a group of soldiers for the job. His objective is to then extort the US and other countries to use the Canal, but unbeknownst to him the commanders of his mercenary army are in fact communists and are secretly working with Cuba. Briscoe is an unlikely villain for the series, but Hardin takes the job because he’s bullied into it by Dan Griggs, a Federal agent who has helped Hardin in the past.

Hardin flies down to Costa Rica on his personal plane, and here again we have arbitrary bits in the text where Roberts informs us how pilots handle small aircraft in rough weather and whatnot. Was the guy a pilot or something on the side? Anyway Hardin’s shaky plan is to pose as Manny Czonka, Norbert Briscoe’s childhood friend; the two haven’t seen each other in decades, and Hardin hopes that Briscoe will have forgotten what Manny looked like. Czonka has gone on to become a left-leaning labor union rep, giving Roberts many opportunities to bash liberals and commies.

Unbelievably enough, Briscoe not only buys that Hardin is his childhood pal, but he immediately tries to recruit him into his Panama Canal scheme! This develops over a very long sequence in which Hardin as Czonka hobknobs with the expatriot jetset at a party on Briscoe’s estate in Costa Rica. We get lots of scenes in which Briscoe’s financial advisors bicker with one another over the Canal plan; they are immediately distrustful of Hardin, as is “The Colonel,” Briscoe’s security chief who is secretly working with the Cubans. In fact for a “financial wizard” Norbert Briscoe comes off like an idiot in Panama Power Play, constantly being fooled by those around him.

Action is sporadic for the first half of the novel, other that is than a completely superfluous scene where, before heading down to Costa Rica, Hardin heads up to Briscoe’s old home turf in Chicago and gets in an arbitrary fight with a pair of cronies who attack him. Needless to say, this incident has no bearing on anything and is never again mentioned. But I guess this would be like complaining about a “superfluous” sex scene in a porn flick. Anyway there’s very little action for the first several chapters of the novel, again marking it from its predecessor.

When the Colonel’s goons pull a hit on Hardin, he finally decides to kick things into gear. Once again hopping into his plane he flies on down to Panama to scout out the location. Here we have another strangely arbitrary scene where, on the main street of some village in Panama, Hardin just happens to run into two old army pals from back in his Vietnam days! These guys, who immediately thereafter disappear from the novel, serve as backstory-expositors, telling Hardin, whom they suspect is now CIA, how the army has gotten word that something strange is going on in the area.

Hardin forages into the jungle and finds a battalion of Cuban soldiers have already secretly encamped. Posing as a local he gets onto the base, but is immediately discovered. There follows a sequence torn from a war novel in which Hardin commandeers a radio and calls in the Panamanian army; troops descend upon the encampment and a smallscalle war ensues. The Penetrator literally disappears throughout this sequence, as we read about random Cuban or Panamanian soldiers blowing each other apart.

When Hardin returns to the narrative he’s busy trying to escape the surviving Cubans, who are still after the imposter who snuck into their camp, despite the apocalyptic battle they just lost. Hardin gets shot in the leg and falls off a cliff, right into a river; he wakes up to see a beautiful young Indian woman looking down at him. This is Rainbow Child, and the next sequence of the novel sees Hardin staying with the natives in their village as he recovers from his wound.

Rainbow Child is of course “given” to Hardin by the chief, though we learn that the girl wanted Hardin anyway. Strangely though Roberts doesn’t make much of the eventual sex scene, with Hardin instead biding his time until he recovers, so that he can finally thwart Briscoe’s Canal plan from occurring – despite the Cubans having been rousted, Hardin knows that Briscoe’s underlings are turncoats and no doubt still have something in mind for the Canal. Only when Rainbow Child complains that Hardin hasn’t slept with her does Roberts deliver the expected scene – but he skips right over it, which is also strange. I was hoping for a Soldier For Hire-style purple-prosed sex scene.

Speaking of sex, as soon as Hardin manages to get back to Costa Rica he finds Joanna Tabler waiting for him in his hotel room. Joanna is Hardin’s girlfriend in all but name, and this is one of the few Roberts Penetrator novels she’s appeared in. Sent down here by her boss Dan Griggs to pose as the girlfriend of “Manny Czonka,” Joanna does absolutely nothing to help Hardin – that is, other than immediately get abducted by the Colonel’s men!

In a sequence that seems to come right out of a sweat mag, Roberts has the Colonel’s stooges torture Joanna in horrible fashion. She’s stripped, burned, beaten (until the point where she pukes), and even violated by the Colonel’s rough fingers. It’s all pretty unsettling and seems to come out of nowhere, but it all culminates in a nice bit where Hardin magically shows up and blows everyone away – just in the nick of time to prevent Joanna from swallowing her cyanide pill.

From here Panama Power Play stalls into the home stretch as Hardin and Joanna turn into veritable pranksters as they try to fool Norbert Briscoe into believing his life is at stake. Their goal is to get him to willingly leaving the country, taking advantage of his “old pal” Manny Czonka’s private plane. At length the ruse works, and after drugging up Briscoe Hardin turns the plane from the Briscoe-intended destination of Cuba and back to the US, where Hardin delivers Briscoe into the hands of Dan Griggs. And by novel’s end, of course, Joanna has sufficiently recovered enough to want a little play time with the, uh, Penetrator.

I guess on second thought Panama Power Play was in fact just as discombobulated as the previous Roberts installment, jumping at random from one subplot to another, but still it lacked the nutzoid spark of other Roberts offerings, not to mention the gore and sex factor. Also on a pedantic note, the nifty little submachine gun Hardin had made at the end of Demented Empire is revealed this time out as being an American 180, which doesn’t look nearly as cool as Roberts described it.