Monday, December 29, 2014

The Hard Corps #2: Beirut Contract

The Hard Corps #2: Beirut Contract, by Chuck Bainbridge
March, 1987  Jove Books

In this second adventure of The Hard Corps, our four mercenaries are hired to rescue a group of peacekeepers who have been abducted by Palestinian terrorists in Beirut. And you know what that means, my friends – a whole bunch of terrorists are going to die!

William Fieldhouse returns under the awesome pseudonym “Chuck Bainbridge,” in an installment that is wisely much shorter than the first. But unfortunately Beirut Contract isn’t as fun as that first volume, and comes off for the most part like an average slice of gung-ho ‘80s men’s adventure, typical of the sort of thing Gold Eagle would’ve published. While it’s all capably done, it just lacks the goofy spark of the first book.

This one stays pretty serious throughout, other than the banter between the members of the Hard Corps, which comes off as very Able Team-esque. They are hired by famous business tycoon Malcolm Banks to rescue his daughter, Georgette, and the peace-keeping group of college kids who were abducted with her in Beirut. This abduction takes up the opening pages, with Georgette first almost getting killed by masked gunmen who attack her and her security guard on the streets of Beirut.

Georgette is saved by a handsome Arab named Abdul, who leads her off to safety. Soon though we learn that Abul is actually the leader of the terrorists who just tried to abduct her; he has spirited Georgette away so as to win her graces and get an even bigger coup: all the members of Georgette’s peacekeeping group. Another bloody setpiece follows, as Abdul and his terrorists attack the bus the peacekeepers ride to a rally in Beirut.

These terrorists, while loathsome and cruel, are nowhwere as sadistic as the real-life terrorists of the modern day; Abdul and his group are overly concerned with how they will look in the eyes of the world, and constantly try to gain favor with the “liberal media” of the west. However the female member of the group, Fatimah, is chomping at the bit to kill all of them, and even goes before the news cameras without a mask to announce that they have abducted the kids. Their demands are a few million dollars and the release of various prisoners. Oh, and they also want a nuclear bomb. It never hurts to ask, I guess.

When he’s stymied by political red tape, Malcolm Banks hires the Hard Corps. We learn that they’re still rebuilding their compound in the woods, which was almost destroyed in the first volume. Also, Fieldhouse introduces his “heroes” in a pretty unsettling way: having Steve “Rambo” Caine murder a pair of redneck poachers who have wandered onto their land. These bumbling drunks, while despicable, really are not deserving of the violent deaths they’re given, but then, the Hard Corps are a bit sadistic this time out.

For example, Banks should know he’s in for trouble when, during his first meeting with the Corps at a bar, Joe Fannelli instigates a fight with someone, just because the dude complains when Fannelli turns the TV channel. This develops into a brawl in which the Hard Corps make mincemeat of hapless barroom drunks. What’s comical is that it all happens right after team leader William O’Neal specifies that they’ll need to be “subtle” on this Beirut job.

Once they get to Lebanon the Hard Corps are met by the leader of the security force that was hired by Banks. Our heroes continue to be contrary, basically blaming this dude for the abduction of the peace rally kids and the deaths of his own men. Then they start demanding a bunch of weapons. We’re also informed via egregious gun-porn dialog of why 9mm pistols aren’t as good as .45s or etc, and how exactly various guns can be modified.

Meanwhile Fieldhouse cuts over to the terrorists, who turn out to be a fractious bunch who may have traitors within their ranks. For example Abdul is certain one of them is working for the KGB. There’s also Fatimah, who comes off as a wildcat ready to bust caps in the hostages at a moment’s notice. Given her own self-outing on TV, the Hard Carps – thanks to their CIA contact Saintly – are able to track down Fatimah’s sister, Amalah, who lives outside of Beirut.

This leads to the novel’s first big action scene, as the Hard Corps first attempt to pass themselves off as locals, thanks to their old ‘Nam pal who has tagged along on this mission, Frank Haperstein. An American expat who may work for Mossad, Haperstein is able to pass himself off as a Palestinian, but the terrorists who surround Amalah’s home become suspicious. Sure enough, a massive-scale gunfight ensues. Fieldhouse does not shy on the details, with brains erupting and blood geysering.

All this is sort of rendered moot, because Amalah has no idea where her terrorist sibling Fatimah might be…and meanwhile, the friggin’ terrorists themselves end up killing off Fatimah! Once again a pulpy female villain is shuffled out of the narrative much too quickly; Abdul shoots Fatimah point-blank in the head when she threatens to make real on her promises to kill off the hostages. In a sad “how the times have changed” angle, the terrorists you see are determined to treat their captives well, so that the terrorists and their cause will look good in the eyes of “the liberal media.”

Some pulp writers deliver anticlimactic finales, but Fieldhouse isn’t one of them. Beirut Contract, as you’d expects, ends with a huge battle, in which the Hard Corps stage an assault on the remote location in wich the terrorists are keeping the hostages. Steve Caine once again comes off like a one-man army, sneaking past guards and slitting throats with his survival knife, and then hopping down into the house through a hole in the roof and blowing away the men surrounding the hostages.

Fieldhouse in all the action scenes hops from character to character, so you can see how Joe Fanelli kills people and how James Wentworth kills people. Brains erupt and blood geysers. The gore level is through the roof! And speaking of Wentworth, the samurai fiend manages to pick up a blade, appropriating some dude’s scimitar so he can hack and slash. In fact there is a preponderence of handfighting this time out; it seems like someone’s always getting the gun knocked out of their hand and thus must resort to their fists or feet.

Anyway, it all wraps up with no surprises – the Hard Corps kill everyone and rescue the hostages. Plus, they are happy that they’ll now have a few million bucks with which to repair their home base. Fieldhouse ends the novel with the contract fulfilled and the Corps heading for the airport, and while it is at times entertaining, Beirut Contract ultimately comes off as forgettable.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Nick Carter: Killmaster #226: Blood Raid

Nick Carter: Killmaster #226: Blood Raid, by Nick Carter
June, 1987  Charter Books

Sporting an awesome if misleading cover (unfortunately, there is no M-16-toting punk rocker chick in the novel), Blood Raid is indicative of the type of novels the Nick Carter: Killmaster series put out late in its run, with a vibe that strays for realism, a lack of action, and a focus on globe-hopping espionage.

Author Jack Canon, who earlier wrote the much-pulpier installment The Satan Trap, goes for a Fleming or rather Robert Ludlum feel, with cynical, world-weary Nick Carter jumping around the Middle East, Europe, and Africa as he hunts down a secret murder cult called The One Hundred Eyes. The “Killmaster” doesn’t even live up to his name until the final quarter, for the most part using his espionage contacts and his wits instead of his various weapons.

The series is back to third-person narration here, which allows Canon to hopscotch around a group of characters. Blood Raid somewhat reminds me of the work of Dan Schmidt, with its terrorist villains, stoic protagonist, and busy plotting, but Canon’s novel moves more smoothly – though it also has a lot less action, so there’s good and bad. At any rate, the novel plays it straight throughout, which is a shame when you consider that this time Carter goes up against a cult of murderers who operate out of a secret hideout in the caves of Niger.

Carter is already on the mission when the novel opens, and his boss David Hawk doesn’t even appear. Terrorists who are looking to “defect” to the West are turning up dead, murdered cult style, usually strangled, and their bodies mutilated. Researching this, Carter hooks up with gorgeous and famous newsreporter Noreen Parris, who meets Carter in Bahrain with some intel she has come upon. Noreen has been known since the ‘70s as the source for info about the terrorist world, but Carter distrusts her throughout, as he knows the lady will keep info for herself so as to get headlines.

Carter is not the same character as he was in previous novels. In fact he’s almost Ryker-esque in Canon’s hands, brusque, rude, and arrogant – he refers to himself as “a very bad-ass spook” when he meets Noreen. He’s not very human throughout, coming off like a cipher, which is likely yet another attempt at realism on Canon’s part, as I guess this is what a real-life spy would probably be like. Most surprisingly, he’s also not concerned with sex at all, coming on like a prick to Noreen, despite her attractiveness, demanding that she does what he tells her to do, when he tells her to do it.

Noreen has come across the info on The One Hundred Eyes, a previously-unknown mystery sect run by Ali-Din Muhammed, the “Grand Vizier” of the order. They supposedly operate out of the mountain ranges of Niger and their goal is the unification of Africa. It all sounds pretty cool, and definitely inspired by the tales of The Old Man of the Mountain, but unbelievably Canon does little to exploit the plot he himself has come up with; Carter doesn’t even make it to the hidden stronghold until the final few pages of the book, and the rest of the narrative comes off like a bland Cold War spy thriller.

The novel mostly reminds me of Schmidt’s work due to an overlong subplot about a KGB informat named Bal-Sakiet who is looking to defect in Oman; Carter has nothing to do with any of this, and you wonder why so much space is being devoted to it. But it develops that Bal-Sakiet is also on the target list of The One Hundred Eyes. It’s also this guy’s death that lets Carter know the Russians are in on it, or at least are trying to cover their tracks.

Noreen Parris has gotten hold of a ring used by members of the cult; like that shown on the cover, it’s a bloodstone that has embossed stars beneath it. Carter is certain it’s a cipher. All they need is a code book, but by the time Carter gets it, Noreen has already taken off. Carter is waylaid by the Russians, lead by Major General Mock, a KGB agent who has apparently had run-ins with Carter before (in particular there’s a reference to a “Cyclops” caper). Mock offers Carter full KGB support, as Mock also wants The One Hundred Eyes put to a stop, even if the Soviet command isn’t concerned about them.

Carter, with the aid of KGB agents, goes next to Cyprus, where Noreen has fled. Here we have the first hinting of sex in the novel, as the beautiful woman who owns the house Noreen is staying in makes her interest in Carter clear. But “Agent N3” is so focused on the job that he doesn’t care. With the ring and code book united, Carter and Noreen go to Milan, where Carter employs a KGB cipher expert to break the code.

The Robert Ludlum Lite stuff continues, as a drunk British agent who skips in and out of the narrative arrives to tell Carter that he’s being followed by Jacob Barassa, “a huge black man” who is one of the top assassins in the world, and likely a member of The One Hundred Eyes. This sequence plays out during an opera, but once again Carter does not get in a fight and basically just walks around outside of the opera and then comes back and discovers the British agent’s corpse.

Suddenly, with no explanation to the reader why, Carter decides he’s going to put together a Mission: Impossible type of team. Now Mock’s KGB resources are pooled toward finding this group of underworld misfits that Carter for whatever reason needs: Trig Muldane, an SAS commando, Ace Hardy, a radio expert, and Jim Rowland, a sailor. But they’re spread all over the Mediterranean and the coast of North Africa, and Carter really racks up the air miles to find them.

And of course, Carter and Noreen find the time to heat up their relationship. Throughout the novel Canon reminds us that Noreen is hot stuff, usually sitting around nude when Carter comes back to their hotel room. But it takes Carter almost the entire novel to remember that he always screws the main female character in each book. The eventual sex scene is pretty explicit, and further evidence that the later books in the series were a lot more graphic than the earlier ones – but again, the earlier ones appear to be more entertaining. So I guess it's a tradeoff!

The One Hundred Eyes stay in contact via broadcasts to secret radio stations in North Africa, and here finally the novel ramps up the tension, as Carter’s team – after a much too long bit where they break Jim Rowland out of prison – stages an assault on one of these secret radio bases. Here, finally, 170 pages into the book, the “Killmaster” actually kills someone. And it’s all very ‘80s action style, with the commando team blitzing everyone with assault rifles and such.

Also, Carter’s plan is finally explained: Ace Hardy, taking over the appropriated radio base, awaits the next Hundred Eyes transmission, so he can track its source. Then, posing as “businessmen” on Rowland’s yacht, they tool around as part of their cover (okay, this part lost me). Anyway, long story short, the novel finally delivers the stuff we’ve been expecting on page 184 (of a 191 page book!!), as Carter and team stage a raid on the secret cavern headquarters of The One Hundred Eyes in Niger.

Talk about underkill! The action is over before you even realize it, and there’s no depth or elaboration to any of it. Even the send-off for the outed leader of the cult, a man named Hajib Tutambe (aka “Ali Din-Muhammed”), who got his start as Idi Amen’s top sadist, is anticlimatic, with a short gunfight between him and Carter. But for the most part, Carter and Trig Muldane just plant explosives deep in the cave, and then rush out, shooting a few people. The place explodes, and so long One Hundred Eyes!

This is the second of Canon’s Nick Carter novels I’ve read, and I have to say, it’s the second one that’s fallen a little flat. It blows my mind that such a pulpy concept could be played out so tepidly, so “realistically,” and once again I have to wonder what a more gifted pulpist like Manning Lee Stokes could’ve done with it.

Oh, and Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Smack Man (Keller #1)

The Smack Man, by Jack Cannon
July, 1989  Pocket Books
(Original publication March, 1975  Manor Books)

Originally published as the first volume of the Keller series, The Smack Man was later revised and reprinted as a Ryker novel, author Nelson DeMille crediting himself as “Jack Cannon.” Ironically, these 1989 Pocket Books reprints are sometimes more scarce and expensive than the orginal editions, and I only got my copy because some unaware employee at a used bookstore put it on the Mystery shelves, for half off the cover price, at that.

I previously read Night Of The Phoenix, which was also one of those ’89 revisions, but I don’t recall it being as revised as The Smack Man clearly is. I’ve never seen the original Manor Books edition, but vast portions of this ’89 edition have obviously been rewritten, with Detective Sergeant Joe Ryker fully brought into late ‘80s New York. I’d love to read that original edition, but I don’t see it happening – I’m not about to spend that much on a copy.

As mentioned in my The Hammer Of God review, Joe Ryker and Joe Keller are one and the same, and when DeMille left Leisure Books and went to Manor he just renamed the series Keller and kept on writing. I think these books were definitely not printed in order, or maybe even weren’t written in order, because The Smack Man clearly takes place after The Cannibal (one I’d love to read) and The Death Squad (another one I want to read) – but both of those books were published after The Smack Man.

And like DeMille’s other Ryker books that I’ve read, The Smack Man is by no means an action-centric men’s adventure novel, even though it was packaged as such (in both editions). It is rather a slow-paced police procedural that operates more so on character and nitty-gritty detail, with the sleazy pit of the Lower East Side fully brought to life (in the ’89 reprints, Ryker was a Sixth Precinct cop, working the Lower East Side, whereas he was a Midtown Manhattan cop in the original ‘70s editions).

But despite the lack of action or sex, I have to say I enjoyed this one just as much as I enjoyed the others. DeMille I think has a great style, very readable, with compelling characters and great dialog. And, as usual, Ryker is a complete obnoxious prick, though it seems here DeMille actually tries to make him the hero, or at least attempts to make us sympathize with him. In previous books it’s seemed to me that Ryker was an antihero in the truest sense of the word, a guy who intentionally pissed off everyone, including the reader.

When a pimp named Rodney calls Ryker to tell him there’s a dead “hoor” in his apartment, Ryker is brought into his current case. The hooker lies sprawled in the pimp’s living room, her spine arched in a horrendous position; Ryker immediately identifies it as the result of strychnine poisoning. There’s a syringe on her thigh, so, as Ryker puts it, “Someone put bad shit in the good shit.” The M.E. claims it’s murder, but it appears the hooker willingly dosed herself. In other words, someone’s out there selling deadly dope to hookers.

As in previous DeMille Ryker novels, we really learn a lot about the criminal underworld and life on the streets. So we learn that no one sells to street hookers – they get their dope from their pimps. Someone though has circumvented this hierarchy and is selling directly to them. We know from the start of the book that it’s a half-dead bum who bought his heroin from a member of a Jamaican posse (another definite revision to this ’89 reprint, I’m sure), but the police have no idea who is behind it and spend the majority of the novel in a fruitless search for whoever’s selling the deadly junk.

Meanwhile Ryker’s more concerned with his broken air conditioner – like practically every other crime novel I’ve read that’s set in New York, The Smack Man takes place during a merciless summer – as well as the constant phone calls he’s getting from his ex-wife, Eleanor. DeMille adds genuine pathos and hummanity to Ryker here, with him still in love with her, and her feeling the same, but calling to taunt him that she’s about to get married, in a desperate gambit for Ryker to drop his work and fly to Chicago to proclaim his love for her. (We also learn that Ryker has a “girlfriend” named Beverly Kim, a “high-price call girl” he apparently met in The Cannibal, but she doesn’t actually appear in this novel.)

Of course, Ryker isn’t about to do what his ex-wife asks of him. And besides, he soon sets his sights on Detective Pamela York, an attractive blonde Narcotics officer who practices “total immersion” in her undercover roles. The most compelling character in the book, Pamela is similar to Abigail Robbins in The Hammer of God, only tougher – and not in that cliched modern “female cop” style, but in a way that seems more cut from reality. She is pretty much Ryker’s perfect match, though they start off with a frosty relationship that gradually warms due to their respect for one another’s experience.

But as for the other cops, Ryker fights with them per usual, in particular his boss, Lt. Fischetti, who is the butt of most of Ryker’s putdowns and insults. The strange lack of continuity is apparent here, for we are informed that Ryker’s partner Bo Lindly is dead, killed on duty. But when? He was alive in Night Of The Phoenix, which was published after this. And also we’re informed that another partner, Sawyer, retired after he and Ryker “had uncovered a pervasive rottenness in the department,” which surely must be a reference to The Death Squad – which I believe was the last volume published in both these “Jack Cannon” reprints and the original Manor series. So what the hell?

Ryker comes up with a plan that’s identical to the one he devised in The Hammer of God: he gets another male cop and a female cop to do the dirty work while he just sits around and bitches about how tough the case is. Williston is the male cop, and since he’s black Ryker gets him to pose as a pimp. A funny joke develops with Williston becoming one of the more successful new pimps in New York, with his stable growing daily. And Pamela York poses as a streetwalker, hoping to run into the mysterious “smack man” who will proposition her.

DeMille builds up a believable growing relationship between Ryker and Pamela, with them bonding as they walk the dangerous night streets of the Lower East Side. They also find the time to badger a bunch of pimps in a local hangout, but when Pamela finally decides to go home with Ryker, the night’s fun is ruined by his broken air conditioner. Throughout the rest of the novel Ryker constantly reminds himself that he doesn’t give a shit about Pamela York – or his wife, who basically pleads with him to come get her in Chicago. But you kind of wonder what the hell these women even see in Ryker.

Once again there isn’t a single action scene, though in this novel Ryker does, for once, actually pull his .357 Magnum in the finale – though it is immediately kicked out of his hand! Ryker doesn’t even get in any fistfights. While it might be realistic so far as all that goes – and DeMille’s Ryker books definitely have a ring of authenticity about them – it does leave the reader feeling a little jilted. Ryker comes off as a loudmouthed jerk who never once backs up his words with his fists, so he loses some of his clout in the reader’s eyes.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want it to be spoiled, but The Smack Man features the mandatory downbeat ending of ‘70s fiction. Each of DeMille’s Ryker novels have had downbeat endings, but in this one he really sticks the blade in and twists it, with Ryker and Pamela finally having sex, and then Pamela rushing out to meet a contact who might know about the bad dope. Williston has recently been killed by someone, and of course it turns out to be the guy Pamela’s meeting. She too becomes his victim, suffering a horrible fate at that, forcibly injected with the strychnine-laced heroin. Only much too late does Ryker put it all together, showing up in the park to find Pamela’s “broken doll” corpse, splayed half-nude in the bushes.

It’s when going for revenge that Ryker actually pulls his gun, but DeMille can’t even give us that much, and continues to aim for realism. Instead the killer gets away – the hastily-rendered story has it that he’s killing hookers in vengeance for his sister, who became a hooker junkie herself – and Ryker gets a month’s suspension. And even though we’re informed Ryker does eventually get revenge, it’s all rendered via summary, and is none too sastifactory. By the end of The Smack Man, Ryker has come full circle, back to the self-centered asshole he started the book as, though he goes through a few changes in the course of the narrative.

I’m curious if this was in fact the last volume DeMille actually wrote, not just due to the references to other books, but also because The Smack Man comes off as a fitting finale for the “adventures” of Joe Ryker – more than any other volume I’ve yet read, Ryker himself becomes personally affected by the events in The Smack Man, but we learn that, despite it all, in the end he is still Joe Ryker, asshole supreme.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Penetrator #22: High Disaster

The Penetrator #22: High Disaster, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Holy boredom, Batman! This volume of The Penetrator is a total snoozefest, and author Chet Cunningham has a lot to answer for in the men’s adventure tribunal that exists in my imagination – he’s guilty of a lack of sex, action, violence, and thrills, serving up a listless plot which sees hero Mark Hardin aimlessly driving around Oregon while listening to “soft music” on the radio.

In my review of the previous volume I mentioned that High Disaster was one of the two titles in the series I didn’t have, but due to the usual obsesiveness I had to get it…but it turns out I would’ve been better off if I hadn’t. Methinks Cunningham must’ve gotten really bored with being “Lionel Derrick” around this time, and perhaps took a trip to Oregon and decided to frame it up as a Penetrator story.

What’s most unfortunate is that it starts off so well – or, at least, so fun. Spoofing the then-popular “Washington fringe benefit” tell-all books and news reports, Cunningham introduces blonde bimbo Arlene Day, who has recently outed Senator Harland W. Harrington as her pimp in all but name. In addition to boffing the senator, Arlene was also whored out to visiting notables. Now she’s come forward with her story – that is, after she’s written her tell-all book, which is about to be published.

This is all relayed via a news conference Arlene gives, where she blithely informs the newsmen (and outraged newswomen) about sex with the senator. A scene capped off by a funny bit where Arlene sheds her top “for the boys in the editing room.” It’s all goofy and fun, and sadly it’s the only entertaining moment in the entire damn novel. And plus, you might wonder what all this stuff has to do with a Penetrator novel.

Meanwhile, Mark Hardin kicks back at the Stronghold, eating raw steaks with Indian mentor David Red Eagle and badgering him with lots of un-PC dialog. The novel keeps plodding on and you have no idea what the point of it all is. Not until a drunk Senator Harrington, his political career ruined, accidentally starts a forest fire near his mountain retreat in Oregon, does High Disaster start to come together.

Harrington, a middle-aged veteran of the war, gets off royally on the destruction. He’s still senator until January, and immediately figures that he can start a wrath of destruction on his own state of Oregon, and no one will suspect him! He hates the entire state because no one came to his defense during the Arlene Day scandal. Also, he has a particular hatred of “the Indians,” because they had reservations on a lot of areas that he wanted to renovate for various business ventures.

Aided by his bodyguard, a former boxer who is loyal to the senator for clearing him of a murder rap, Harrington becomes the “Oregon Terror,” and begins his war against the state. Arson, explosions (Harrington was a demolitions expert in the army), and poisoning of the state’s water supply are the main avenues of his attack. Hardin becomes interested in the situation due to the suffering this causes Oregon’s American Indian population, and hops in his plane to fly to Oregon and kick ass.

The “Indian” motif is really ramped up this time around, with Hardin several times referred to as “the big Indian guy” by other characters. It gets to be a bit much, though Hardin does at least poke fun at himself for his newfound interest in all things Indian. But anyway, he hooks up with some Indians on a reservation in Oregon, assessing the damage caused by one of Harrington’s fires. In the destruction Hardin discovers overlooked evidence which will eventually lead him to figuring out that Harrington is the Oregon Terror.

But what a snoozefest it is! Cunningham writes endless detail of Hardin tooling around Oregon in his rented LTD, listening to “soft music” on the radio. This phrase is repeated so many times in the text that it gets funny – I mean, seriously, vast portions of High Disaster are comprised of bloodthirsty Mark “Penetrator” Hardin just driving around and listening to, I don’t know, James Taylor or something.

And even worse, we readers already know that a middle-aged senator is the villain of the piece – a villain, that is, who only has a single henchman! To say these two guys are outmatched by Hardin would be an understatement. Where’s the crazed violence and action setpieces of previous volumes? There’s nothing of the sort in High Disaster, in which Hardin is still just tooling around in the LTD while Harrington burns down half of the state, even killing several people in the process.

As usual, a female presence serves to brighten things, if only slightly; this is Maxine O’Reilly, hot blonde Oregon office secretary of Harrington, who, despite still being loyal to the man, relents to Hardin’s questioning when he enters the office and concedes that she too suspects that Harrington is the Oregon Terror. Now Hardin has a passenger who can ride around in the LTD and listen to “soft music” with him. However, Cunningham does not deliver the sex scene you figure would be mandatory, and Hardin and Maxine only maintain a working relationship.

The novel’s first action scene doesn’t happen until well over halfway through, when Hardin spends the night at that Indian reservation. Hardin patrols the grounds – and fires at a mysterious car that drives through late that night. Two black men get out, armed with Molotov cocktails, and lay down a story that they were hired by some dude to come here and torch the place. The guys are hauled off to the police station, and Hardin is certain they were hired by Harrington. Did you notice though that Hardin didn’t even kill them in the firefight? It’s like this throughout the novel, as if the violent hero of the previous volumes has been replaced by an American Indian Mister Rogers.

Apparently the state police and FBI are clueless, and only Hardin is capable of figuring out where Harrington will likely strike next: Bonneville Dam. And in fact the senator is there, having hired a few goons to help him out for the occasion. It isn’t until almost the very last page that Hardin actually kills someone, blowing away one of Harrington’s goons. And it’s his only kill of the entire novel! Otherwise the action scene here is perfunctory and bland; again, Hardin’s up against a heavyset senator and a few stooges, so there isn’t much potential for a big firefight.

And just as in his previous volume, Cunningham delivers an anticlimatic death for his villain, having Harrington, who’s been shot by Hardin, dive to his death off the dam, after informing Hardin that the entire thing’s going to blow. Hardin has seconds to defuse the bomb, including a “tense” part where he has to let the cops allow him past the barricade so he can help them. But good gravy it’s just all so boring, bland, and tepid – though we are informed that Hardin and Maxine, now that danger’s out of the way (and the novel’s about to end) are about to heat up their previously-platonic relationship.

Previous Cunningham installments have been sort of boring – in fact, a general malaise has overtaken the entire series by this point, with even co-writer Mark Roberts’s most recent book being a dud – but High Disaster takes it to a whole new low. To repeat, I should’ve skipped tracking this one down. And so should you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Sea Trap (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #44)

The Sea Trap, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Once again I have Zwolf to thank – his review of this volume of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series really piqued my interest. And man, what an awesome novel it is! Not only is this easily the best volume of the series I’ve yet read, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp, like a late ‘60s take on the “shudder pulps” of the 1930s.

What’s most unexpected is the author who was behind The Sea TrapJon Messmann. This novel features none of the ponderous or pretentious writing he would later bring to the Revenger series, none of the momentum-stalling self-introspection or the “meaningful” dialog. The Sea Trap is just a straight-up blast of violent, sex-filled fun, like an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon, as Nick Carter heads to the Caribbean and takes on a group of deformed, super-evil villains and the gigantic submarine-catching clam they have created!

Predating the unfortunate series switch to first-person narration, The Sea Trap is written in third person and moves at a steady clip. We learn early on that a few atomic submarines have gone missing in the Caribbean, in particular the X-88, an experimental US Navy model. The abductor turns out to be Judas, a recurring series villain, who has issued his demads for a hundred million dollars for the captured sub as well as its crew. Judas has, we learn, teamed up with a psychotic who is even more depraved and insane than Judas himself is.

I’ve often read about Judas, who was of course the Blofeld of the early Killmaster novels, but this is the first time I’ve read a novel he appears in. He is certainly a pulpy creation: an “economy-size gnome” with a “striated face” that’s “partially immobile” thanks to bad plastic surgery. He also has a “metal and leather” left hand, which has a gun built into the middle finger! His freakish, deformed nature is constantly played up by Messmann, but then, the freakishness of the villains is focused on throughout the novel.

Judas’s partner is even more freakish: Harold Fratke, a marine bioligist who is into “scientific erotica,” which means torturing women in bizarre ways. Harold is impotent (and perhaps latently gay, something Messmann introduces late in the narrative) and gets off on torturing gorgeous women, then handing them over to Judas’s hulking henchman, Tartar, who rapes them nearly to death. Messmann actually opens the novel with one of these scenes, and it all could come out of a sweat mag of the time.

Nick Carter is called to AXE headquarters in New York, where his boss David Hawk presents him with this impossible mission: Carter has five days to figure out where Judas is and where the captured sub is, and there are zero leads. “No trouble at all,” Carter sarcastically responds. He’s given a few goodies by the Special Effects group, including a wetsuit with innumerable hidden pockets that brings to mind John Eagle’s plastic suit in the Expeditor series – and speaking of which, Messmann’s style here shows that he would’ve been a perfect choice to serve as “Paul Edwards” on that later series, but I guess by then Messmann had moved on to publishing under his own name.

Flying to Puerto Rico, which Judas might be operating near, Carter becomes friendly with an attractive co-passenger named Betty Lew Rawlings. Coincidence alert: Betty has been hired by a mysterious staffing company to be the secretary for an old man who lives on a remote island. The company was so determined to only staff a woman who had no family, friends, or other connections that her entire history was researched before she was hired. Carter files this as interesting – and promptly bangs Betty that night in her hotel room. There are several sex scenes in The Sea Trap, and they’re actually a lot more explicit than you’d expect.

The two part ways the next morning, and Carter heads on to Venezuela, where he hooks up with a team of marine bioligsts on their own vessel, which is plying through this portion of the Caribbean. The ship is run by Dr. Danielle Fraser, who as you’d guess turns out to be a blonde with the body of a goddess, but who disdains sexual attraction and thus quickly rebuffs the immediately-interested Killmaster. As Zwolf mentions, the way Carter treats Danielle must’ve seemed "Neanderthal" even in ’69; he basically tells her they’re going to have sex, whether she likes it or not, and thus issues a challenge, Danielle’s “scientific mind” versus Carter’s raw male mystique.

It’s all of course hilariously pre-PC, but at the same time it’s pretty hilarious in its own right, leading to several funny scenes and banter. Like for example the part Zwolf mentioned, where Carter and Danielle go beneath the waves in her Sea Spider underwater craft, and Carter has to climb beneath Danielle’s seat to fix something, looking up at her from between her legs. Messmann per the genre takes many opportunities to exploit Danielle’s awesome bod, in particular when Carter spies on her midnight skinny dip, during which Danielle gets injured and Carter sucks the poison out of her, checking out her “magnificent breasts” the entire time.

Carter however continues to just provoke Danielle, getting her to a boiling point and then backing down, all so as to prove his goofy point. He does manage to score for the second time in the novel with a girl he just happens to run across during his trawls across the Caribbean in Danielle’s airplane; this is Joyce Tanner, who is plying around in her “ketch,” looking for her sister June. Joyce reveals that June answered an ad for a mysterious staffing company, to be the secretary for a reclusive man, and hasn’t been heard from since leaving six months ago.

Carter instantly suspects something – and determines to look into it further. But first of course he has to bang Joyce. Messmann really goes full out on this one, with Joyce basically telling Carter he’s the greatest man she’s ever been with and etc. Of course, this mysterious, reclusive man is none other than Judas, who has been supplying Harold with a steady supply of women to torture and mutilate. Beyond being shoehorned into the plot for an arbitrary lay, Joyce also provides Carter with the location of Judas’s secret hideout, which she’s seen from the ketch; it’s invisible from the air, hence Carter missing it during his flybys.

The book has been enjoyable all along, but when Carter gets onto the island it goes into a higher gear. Also the sci-fi angle comes into play, and it’s sci-fi of a goofy nature: Harold has devised a massive “sea trap” patterned after a clam. It’s a massive construct of steel beneath Judas’s island, so large that the captured experimental sub is inside it. We’re later informed that the giant claim has stuff built in it which prevents the electricity and power from running on the sub, which you’d think would mean that all the men aboard would suffocate, but forget it; you’d be thinking too much.

After a fairly gory firefight, in which Carter takes out most of Judas’s goons with a submachine gun, Carter is per tradition captured, so Judas can deliver the mandatory supervillain monologue. Here also the “shudder pulp” stuff is really laid on, as we watch as Harold puts sea lampreys on one of the girls, one who is important to Carter, until her face is almost eaten away. Finally Carter is taken into a massive room in which all of the captured women are kept in cages.

This is all pretty unsettling, with the women nude and mutilated, some of them missing various parts of their bodies, and all of them driven insane. In fact their screams are so horrendous that the sole patrolling guard must wear earplugs. Carter, left here with the women before his own torture begins (Harold excited at the prospect of performing his sexual torture on a man), is himself almost driven insane. But this is the Killmaster, so I’m sure you can all see where it’s going: soon enough all of the insane, mutilated women are set free, and they run amok on the island. The horror vibe of the novel continues apace, as the women actually eat one of the villains!

There’s also an Apocalypse Now vibe, as Carter, having disabled the sea trap so the captured sub can escape, calls in an airstrike. But thanks to Judas’s fallback plan, in which a ring of sharks are called around the island in a feeding frenzy, there’s no escape. So now Carter basically waits for his own death, as there’s no way to call off the airstrike. Messmann adds more unsettling yet poignant stuff here, with the return appearance of a few characters Carter knew, now mutilated and insane.

Carter is determined to kill Judas this time – and, so far as the narrative is concerned, he succeeds in doing so. This plays out in yet another great scene (in a novel filled with them), where Judas, locked in an impenatrable vault in his house, trades threats with Carter. Physically he’s no match for Cater, but that pistol-hand comes into play. Carter smashes the man into pulp, destroying his face, and the last we see of Judas a steel girder has fallen on him, after which the island is destroyed – but then, the only way one can be certain a supervillain is dead is for him to be shot point-blank in the head. And even then you might wonder.  (As for Judas, he did return for one more volume: 1974’s Vatican Vendetta, which was also the last volume of the series produced by Engel.)

The climax is also entertaining, with Carter getting off the island thanks to, you guessed it, the surprise appearance of Danielle in her Sea Spider. And as you’d also guess, Carter ends up winning his bet, right there and then – though honestly, I wouldn’t be feeling too randy after seeing all those caged, mutilated, and insane women. But then, I’m not the Killmaster. Carter instead sexually-bullies Danielle a bit more, until the “blonde goddess” can’t take it anymore and just needs some lovin’ asap. Messmann actually writes back-to-back sex scenes here, with an insatiable Danielle rolling Carter over so she can get on top. Ride ‘em, cowgirl!

We even get a cap-off joke with Hawk, who treats Danielle and Carter to dinner in a fancy New York restaurant (where they’re served clams). I mean, it’s pretty damn impressive how much goes down in the 160 pages of The Sea Trap -- and how much fun it is throughout. It’s got very good writing, fun dialog and banter, incredibly depraved villains, pretty graphic sex, and some unsettling violence, and if the series was like this throughout it would be the greatest men’s adventure series ever.

Unfortunately, I get the feeling The Sea Trap is an anomaly in the Killmaster series – but I’ll for sure be checking out more of Jon Messmann’s contributions.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sweeter Than Candy

Sweeter Than Candy, by Cynthia Wilkerson
No month stated, 1978  Belmont Tower Books

I wrote two books as Cynthia Wilkerson. The first one was disgusting. The second one was slightly less disgusting. -- Len Levinson, in a phone conversation with me in April, 2012

The more scarce of the two novels Len wrote as “Cynthia Wilkerson,” Sweeter Than Candy is “in the tradition of” a now-forgotten piece of bestselling 1970s sleaze titled Blue Skies, No Candy, by Gael Greene. Len told me this when I spoke to him the other year, saying that if his own novel was “disgusting,” so was Greene’s. When I asked him again recently about his novel, Len told me:

[Belmont Tower editor] Milburn Smith told me to write something like Blue Skies, No Candy, which was very popular back then; I think it was on the Times bestseller list. So I read Blue Skies, decided it was quite trashy, and decided to out-trash it. The plot, characters, etc. of Sweeter were all mine. In a sense, it was my response to Blue Skies. In order to review Sweeter, you probably should read Blue Skies which inspired it.

At 265 pages, not only is Sweeter Than Candy one of the longer books of Len’s I’ve yet read, it’s also by far the most trashy, sleazy, and explicit. Like Greene’s novel, this one is narrated by its female (anti)hero: Vivian Sinclair, the 35 year-old “sexual terror of Manhattan” who makes her living as a drama critic for a small New York newspaper.

With blonde hair, big boobs, and “the greatest ass in the world,” Vivian is a regular man-eater, “fucking and sucking” practically every guy she meets – much to the chagrin of her Columbia professor of a husband, Roger, who starts off the novel by informing Vivian one day that he’s divorcing her. After getting over her shock – Vivian thought she and Roger had an understanding, as they both have had multiple affairs – our heroine consoles herself that she no longer will have a husband.

Not that she suffers much. The novel occurs over a few weeks, and I think Vivian only spends one night alone (and even then she gives herself a “finger-job”). Moments after her husband’s left her, Vivian puts on her “warpaint” (ie makeup), some sexy clothes, and leaves her fashionable Greenwich Village apartment with its “ultra-modern furniture” and goes to a nearby bar, where she promptly picks up Steve, a good-looking young cocaine dealer.

At Steve’s place there follows a super-explicit sex sequence that goes on for fifteen pages(!). Len leaves no stone unturned here, as the two fuck like crazy. These sex scenes bring to mind Len’s earlier novel Where The Action Is, which also featured a female narrator relating every detail of her sex life, however Sweeter Than Candy is all about the sex, with no espionage or mystery subplot to get in the way.

A recurring thing in the novel is that Vivian fights with just about everyone, especially men right before she screws them, but during the act she’ll tell them she loves them. I think Vivian tells about four guys “I love you” in the course of the novel. Steve’s no different, but he disappears from the novel after their herculean sexual bout; next up is Dudley Tarbush, a Broadway director who has been sleeping with Vivian for years.

In fact, Vivian’s soon-to-be-ex Roger comes home the next day, hoping to mend things with Vivian, only to find her and Tarbush fucking on the kitchen floor! To make it even wackier and crazier, Len even brings Tarbush’s wife, Beverley, onto the scene, so that Tarbush and Vivian now find themselves openly caught in the act by their spouses. The two spouses leave, vowing costly divorces, but Tarbush gets over it soon, telling Vivian he’s always loved her and got married in the first place just to make her jealous.

I thought this would prove to be the plot of Sweeter Than Candy, Vivian and Tarbush falling in love while getting vengeance on their spouses, but it isn’t; in fact, Vivian and Roger have made up well before novel’s end. Like most other Len Levinson novels, this one isn’t straightjacketed by much of a plot, and instead comes off like our narcissistic and sex-crazed protagonist going from one adventure to the next.

Vivian soon finds herself giving a blowjob to Doug Gallagher, the Burt Reynolds-esque star who’s come to New York to promote his new theater production of Hamlet. Soon after this she’s trying to “make a man” out of a gay tenant of her apartment building, the sharply-dressed and charming Timothy Peabody. We get all sorts of stuff here that would be unprintable in today’s blandified world, as the things Vivian thinks and says about Peabody would be considered quite inappropriate in our modern age.

But Len is just setting us up. The joke turns out to be on Vivian, for after inviting “Mr. Peabody” to a theater opening with her (where she forces her hand down his pants and jerks him off, much to his horror and discomfort), she demands that he let her into his apartment that night…and soon discovers that Mr. Peabody isn’t gay at all! Instead, his name is Craig and he gets off on posing as a homosexual, so women will try a little harder for him. You see, Craig finds sex so easy these days that there’s no challenge to getting laid, so he’s come up with this little game.

Now, all this is relayed after Vivian has practically raped the guy, blowing him in super-explicit detail and then demanding that he go down on her. But Craig’s such an expert “cunt-lapper” that Vivian instantly suspects something. Not that she’s too crestfallen, as in Craig Peabody Vivian has found her ideal match: a narcissistic sex-fiend who is every bit as depraved, opinionated, and mean-hearted as she. They even call each other “Bastard” and “Bitch” while fucking, with Craig telling Vivian flat-out that he hates her – that is, before telling her he loves her while they’re going at it once again.

The (sort of) main plot comes to a head again as Vivian, post-coitus, realizes that Craig could really help her out in her upcoming divorce from Roger, who by the way is attempting to sue Vivian for alimony(!). In a protracted caper Vivan and Tarbush fool Tarbush’s wife Beverley into thinking she’s about to be interviewed for a tell-all book about Broadway, but instead she’s seduced by Craig, and their ensuing sex is captured on film. This is then used to prevent Tarbush from paying Beverley alimony, and also to destroy Beverley’s credibility as a reliable witness for Roger.

But Len’s characters are always seeking happiness, even when they’ve found it, and Craig promptly breaks it off with Vivian, telling her he doesn’t trust her, thus she can’t be his perfect match. This occurs around page 160, and Vivian pines for him throughout the 100 or so remaining pages of the novel, even when she and Roger have gotten back together in an open relationship that’s even more open than it was before.

The incident which causes their reunion is another of the novel’s many highlights. In the opening of the tale Roger informs Vivian that he’s leaving her for a young, pretty co-ed named Taffy. Much later in the novel, after being dumped by Craig, Vivian goes into a bar to get drunk. She’s soon checking out the super-hot waitress. Guess what her name turns out to be? That’s right – Taffy. It’s none other than the “tramp” Roger left her for, though a clueless Taffy tells Vivian that she herself has now left Roger, once she found out he was going to sue his ex-wife for alimony.

Not letting Taffy know who she is, Vivian sets about on yet another of her madcap plans: namely, taking this lovely young woman home and having hot lesbian sex with her! And after smoking a little pot the two do just that, with yet another protracted sex scene as they go down on each other in the bathtub. And in a funny callback to the earlier part, Roger once again walks in on the scene! (Strangely Len does not write the three-way I expected, with Taffy fleeing in shock from these two “freaks.”)

Vivian and Roger back together again, you’d think the novel would end…but there are still 40 or so pages to go. Len introduces an eleventh hour subplot about Sir Richard Tysedale, a reclusive British billionaire who is about to buy out Vivian’s paper. Tysedale owns papers all over the world, this being the first in New York he’ll appropriate, and in each previous case he’s always fired the old staff. Realizing her job’s on the line, Vivian finds out from a rich friend that Tysedale lives in a mansion on the moors of Scotland.

Purchasing a last-second ticket, Vivian takes off alone for the UK (blowing the good-looking guy in the seat next to her and screwing him upon their arrival in Scotland), where she’s determined to corner an interview wihth Tysedale, who has never before granted such a thing. When she meets the old recluse, Vivian once again finds a kindred spirit, an opinionated, high-born racist who hates the lower classes, minorities, and gays with even more vehemence than Vivian. After granting her interview, Tysedale then asks Vivian to “make pee-pee and poo-poo” on him in a bathtub!!

Thankfully Len doesn’t write this particular scene, but when we meet Vivian again she’s back in Manhattan, loving life as the managing editor of Beautiful People Magazine, another of Tysedale’s recently-purchased New York publications. In other words, Vivian is given the happy ending I figured she’d be denied, achieving her worldly dreams and, despite still being married to Roger, engaging in open affairs with a variety of men.

The one sad spot in her life is her unrequited love for Craig Peabody, as she still finds herself obsessed with him. Len ends the novel with the tantalizing chance that there could be sequel, someday, with Vivian declaring that, no matter what, she will find Craig, but if Len actually did plan to write another book about Vivian Sinclair he must’ve changed his mind. His other book as “Cynthia Wilkerson” was an unrelated novel more akin to a category Romance, and Len considers that one the superior of the two.

Len’s writing is as ever strong and enjoyable; there are tons of lines and pieces of dialog that are rife for quoting, but I’m a lazy man. He covers all the bases from the sleazy to the profound. He does though slip in and out of present tense at times, which makes for an awkward read given that the novel is in past tense. Also, the book is littered with typos and misprintings, though this isn’t Len’s doing; it’s the usual subpar Belmont Tower “editing” at work.

One of the more interesting things about Sweeter Than Candy is that Vivian Sinclair is like the antagonists of trashy bestsellers of the day, like the sort of stuff that made Jacqueline Susann rich and famous. She’s vituperative, shrill, self-centered beyond the point of narcissism, opionated, arrogant, highfalutin, racist, manipulative, untrustworthy, and basically just a general bitch.

Yet as the narrator, Vivian presents herself to us as the hero of the tale, which makes for an interesting reading experience – and a fun reading experience, for sure. But I can’t say Vivian is a character I much liked. After reading her self-obsessed thoughts for almost 300 pages, I kind of hoped she’d get some sort of comeuppance, but it never happens – she ends the tale just as blissfully vain as she was in the beginning.

This is not to take away from the novel itself, which is a fun and sleazy romp through late 1970s New York City.  As I read it, it occurred to me that Sweeter Than Candy was yet another of Len’s novels that would’ve gotten a lot more attention if it had been published by an outfit with better distribution -- the very scarcity of Sweeter Than Candy suggests that it likely had a small print run.  It’s a shame, really, as the novel deserved a better fate.

Len offered to write up his thoughts on Sweeter Than Candy, and as usual his “addendum” is just as entertaining as the novel itself:

I volunteered to write an addendum to Joe’s review of Sweeter Than Candy by Cynthia Wilkerson, who in real life was none other than me. I wonder what Cynthia’s fans would think if they discovered she’d grown a beard. 

To the best of my recollection, it all began in 1977 on an afternoon when I was sitting in the editorial office of Belmont-Tower in New York City, beside the desk of one of my editors, Milburn Smith. I don’t remember where my usual editor, Peter McCurtin, was that day. 

After initial pleasantries, Milburn asked me to write something similar to a novel that was on the best-seller lists then: Blue Skies, No Candy by Gael Greene, which was much discussed in the media as a sensationally erotic breakthrough in feminist literature. A friend referred to it as "Blue Skies, No Panties."  Ms. Greene also was a well-known restaurant critic for New York magazine. 

After leaving BT’s offices, I bought a copy of Blue Skies, took it home, read it front to back, and evaluated it as pedestrian middlebrow smut. My only reasonable response was to out-smut it, a challenge for which I felt fully qualified, given my smutty brain during my younger years. 

I’ve just now finished reading Sweeter Than Candy for the first time since I delivered the manuscript in 1977. Approximately 60% percent of the novel is hard core erotica spiced with zany comedic overtones. The rest is a satire on NYC snobbery and pretentiousness, also spiced with zany comedic overtones. 

A few times I laughed out loud at my own words written around 37 years ago. The sexually overactive lead character Vivian Sinclair, drama critic for a daily newspaper, is hilarious in her hypocrisy, silliness, self-deceptions and ruthless ambition. The plot firmly held my attention with its unexpected twists and turns drizzled with sparkling dialogue. 

It was fun to write a novel under a woman’s name, from a woman’s point of view. The National Organization of Women probably will put me before a firing squad if they ever read this novel, but I only was trying to lampoon certain NYC women who considered themselves completely progressive, far above traditional morality, going from love affair to love affair, perhaps getting married a few times along the way, always on the lookout for hedonistic pleasures, gold diggers par excellence, not above one-night-stands, and naturally seeing psychiatrists regularly. 

Unfortunately, there are many typos in Sweeter Than Candy, but BT was not known for its copy editing skills. For example, on page 196, a Greenwich Village bar was referred to as the Nebraska Midnight. On page 198 it had become Dakota Midnight. Such errors must have been very disconcerting for readers. The bar was based on the Montana Eve on the west side of 7th Avenue north of Sheridan Square, where my brother worked as bartender and then manager for awhile, and where I hung out occasionally. 

I’m proud to say that Sweeter Than Candy truly was more smutty than Blue Skies, No Candy, in my admittedly biased opinion, and a better read as well. Unfortunately, Sweeter Than Candy never was embraced by the New York literati, went out of print long ago, and is not available now as an ebook. But it was very enjoyable to write, and I guess that’s what mattered most to me.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Death Merchant #40: Blueprint Invisibility

Death Merchant #40: Blueprint Invisibility, by Joseph Rosenberger
August, 1980  Pinnacle Books

Sporting an awesome cover (I think the Death Merchant covers, courtesy Dean Cate, were the best in the entire Pinnacle line), Blueprint Invisibility features psychotic protagonist Richard Camellion taking on a mission that involves the Philadelphia Experiment hoax, MKUltra-style mind control, the Red Chinese, and, uh, New York City escort services.

But man, how about that cover? You’ve got bizarre, Ken Strickfaden-style gizmos, what appears to be a pair of teleporting people, and a nattily-attired Richard Camellion pulling himself out of a gurney or something while almost casually firing his submachine gun. Best of all, the top of the cover features a muscular dwarf with an eyepatch and robotic arms! I’ve been hopping around this series with no concern about reading it in order, so I decided to check out this volume, just given the cover alone.

And while most of this stuff’s in the actual novel, it isn’t featured as much as you wish it would be. Instead, Joseph Rosenberger is more concerned with pointlessly-detailed gun battles and lots of material which was obviously lifted from various encyclopedias or copies of National Geographic, as well as the odd issue of Fate. The Philadelphia Experiment stuff is basically just the framework Rosenberger uses to get Camellion in a host of fights with the Red Chinese, and ultimately it’s a complete McGuffin.

Anyway, Rosenberger opens the novel as if we’ve missed something; at first I thought it was a direct lead-in from the previous installment, which I don’t have, but it isn’t. Camellion’s in DC, leading a group of Navy Intelligence operatives as they tail Mason Shiptonn, a Navy Intelligence staffer who, Camellion is certain, has been turned into a mind-controlled sleeper agent by the Red Chinese. Shiptonn was one of the few people with access to the ultra-classified Philadelphia Experiment papers, and apparently three months ago he took photos of them and gave them to the Chinese – all without his conscious knowledge.

Rather than the Philadelphia Experiment’s “hyperspace quality and/or factor” stuff, Camellion is more concerned over how the Chinese comrpomised Shiptonn…and how they did it so quickly, like in just a few hours. Because, as we are reminded at length, there’s no surefire way to completely control a person’s mind in such a short time. I should mention here that more, much more, attention is placed on mind control/MKUltra stuff rather than the more-interesting Philadelphia Experiment stuff, which Rosenberger almost blithely documents and then moves on to other things.

When they lock down Shiptonn after a firefight with some Chinese agents, Camellion is briefed by his CIA handler Grojean, and decides to move on to New York City to figure out how exactly Shiptonn was brainwashed. No one’s much concerned about the leaked Philadelphia Experiment stuff; they’re more worried over other sleeper agents. Anyway, Shiptonn spent one night with a high-class hooker from the Olympia Escort Service in Manhattan, and at great length Camellion learns that it’s run by a gorgeous former escort named Soraya Duncan, who is involved with a Mafia boss named Charley Franzese.

Rosenberger fills the middle quarter of the novel with material almost lifted verbatim from various guides to New York. Reading Blueprint Invisibility, I had to laugh, recalling what Donald “Dr. Rock” Schnell mentioned in his memories of Rosenberger – namely, how Rosenberger’s study was lined with National Geographic magazines and maps of US cities. One can easily tell, reading this novel, that Rosenberger had each of these things by his side as he pecked away at his typewriter.

The escort service material actually gets more print than both the Philadelphia Experiment and the brainwashing stuff combined. My guess is Rosenberger also must’ve been leaning on the various “sex expose” paperbacks that had been printed at the time – but then, the dude himself penned some, back in the ‘60s, a few of which I’ll get around to reviewing someday. Anyway the Olympia service has never been busted, due to the curious fact that no client has ever managed to score with one of the escorts!

Camellion suspects Soraya Duncan and mobster Farenzese are involved with the Red Chinese somehow, and that the escort programmed Shiptonn that night. Camellion canvases Manhattan, doing his research, working with his CIA contact – a man named William Fieldhouse!  Stephen Mertz has told me that Fieldhouse was friends with Rosenberger, and indeed was part of what Mertz calls “the Rosenberger Circle.” So this character, a tough ‘Nam vet who is described as “well-muscled and nice-looking,” is clearly a reference to the actual William Fieldhouse, whom Camellion starts to like so much that he soon just calls him “Bill!”

Soraya Duncan is a mega-babe redhead who despite being involved with Farenzese will still go out with the occasional client. Camellion uses a dandy named Ewart Gremmill, a CIA contractor marked for death by the Agency, to set him up with her. We get lots of background detail on Soraya, none of which matters much in the grand scheme of things. So shoehorned is all of this that the dwarf on the cover, who turns out to be a former wrestler named Gregory Gof (and who has steel fingers, instead of the friggin’ cooler robotic arms of the cover painting), is not only Soraya’s assistant but also her brother – and this tidbit is not fleshed out in the least. In fact, Gof amounts to zilch in the novel, appearing for maybe three pages.

The Camellion-Soraya date is the most interesting moment in the novel, as Camellion finds himself taken by the gorgeous beauty, despite his concern that she might be a traitor. And she’s my dream girl, too, casually discussing P. D. Ouspensky on a first date!! But still, Camellion senses “a strong negative thought-field around her.” They go back to her posh apartment, where the lady makes clear her intention to screw Camellion senseless. I figured she’d instead lead him into a trap, or some out-of-nowhere and pointlessly-detailed fight scene would ensue, but nope – Rosenberger writes an actual sex scene, my friends.

Spanning four pages, the Camellion-Soraya encounter is a lot more explicit than I expected it to be, given the author. But just after their mutual whopping orgasms the two are surprised by the sudden entrance of Soraya’s mobster partner, Charley Franzese, with a few of his goons. Camellion, who is playing a Texan enterpreneur named “Jefferson Davis Hafferton,” busts out his kung-fu skills and beats them all senseless. He then leaves Soraya there with them, having come to the decision that she isn’t the best woman he’s had sex with, even though he lies to her that she is(?).

So far there hasn’t been much of the tedious action Rosenberger is known for, but he makes up for it posthaste. Launching a soft probe in the middle of the night on the building which houses the Olympia Escort Service, Camellion and Fieldhouse (the former who wears a Frankenstein mask, the latter a Wolfman mask) get in a huge battle with Franzense’s stooges. It goes on and on, and culminates with the two making an aiborne escape on a helicopter, with the NYPD helicopter patrol in pursuit.

It should be mentioned that Camellion goes out of his way to kill cops this time around – in fact, several times he tells his associates that they too had better be ready to kill any police officers that get in the way! So here he casually oversees the destruction of a few NYPD helicopters, marking up the policeman’s deaths as just par for the course. But then, Camellion is more psychotic than usual this time out; even Rosenberger seems to understand this, as toward the end he informs us that “in eleven years [Camellion] had killed literally thousands of people.”

Another mostly-tedious action scene follows, as Camellion, Fieldhouse, and more CIA agents attack a “Red Chinese fortress” in the affluential 160s section of Manhattan. In this sequence Camellion et al are themselves disguised as Chinese, thanks to Camellion’s usual wizardry with makeup; also notable is this tongue-twister of a line, which is delivered just before Camellion’s new buddy guns down a few Red Chinese: “Go screw a sapsucker, you slant-eyed slobs,” snarled Fieldhouse.

In the homestretch it’s learned that the Red Chinese who stole the Philadelphia Experiment stuff are on Chelsworth Island, off of Maine’s coast. Also the Chinese agents who have perfected the mind-control are there, not to mention Soraya Duncan, the three of her escorts who were in on it with her, and Farenzese. I mean, they’re all just conveniently gathered together. Camellion, his stalwart Agency pals, and a handful of SEALs stage an ambush, Camellion informing them that everyone on the island is to be killed – and indeed, if any of the men have problems with shooting women, they’d better leave now!

As if to prove how heartless and sick he is, Camellion soon after blows away a Chinese whore in cold blood, just some innocent hooker brought in to entertain the Chinese officers. Then, dressed in a “sky blue jumpsuit,” Camellion proceeds to lead his team on a gore-soaked assault on the island, in the third and final of the novel’s incredibly-boring action scenes. It’s all just like Rosenberger’s earlier Mace junk, with a barrage of Chinese names and obscure martial arts terms thrown at us.

Rosenberger himself relishes in describing the gruesome deaths of Soraya Duncan and her three girls, documenting thoroughly the path of each bullet through Soraya’s “once-beautiful body.” It’s dark, disquieting stuff, and off-putting as well – Rosenberger writes that one of the poor girls is even given “a free hysterectomy” thanks to a SEAL-fired bullet, and it’s all just depressing because it’s our supposed heroes who are shooting these unarmed girls, and it’s all presented to us as a sterling victory against the dark forces of Communism.

All of the Philadelphia Experiment stuff is rendered moot in the melee; we learn that the Chinese have built a “space bending machine,” but Camellion has no interest whatsoever in learning what it does. And Rosenberger has no interest in telling us. Instead, Camellion oversees the death of everyone, save for a few captured Chinese scientists, and then wires the entire compound to blow, including the space-bender. And now he’s all excited because Grojean just told him that his next mission will be in…North Ireland! The End!!

So yeah, none of the cool shit depicted on the cover actually happens in the novel. But in exchange you at least get to witness the Death Merchant scoring with a woman. Plus, we learn the usual random and bizarre tidbits about Camellion, like that “one of his favorite drinks” is two parts Scotch and one part Perrier over two ice cubes. Also that he enjoys eating kumquats while drinking cocoa. Oh, and that not only does he need just four hours of sleep a night, but that his typical breakfast is “black coffee, a small cup of honey, and two vitamin pills.”

Finally, the super-bizarre shit is in full effect, so far as the “Cosmic Lord of Death” goes, with Camellion apparently knowing when he’s going to die (“but not today!”), the aforementioned sensing of “negative thought-fields,” and occasional lines like, “The Cosmic Lord of Death was always on [Camellion’s] side, but Time hated his guts and was forever his main enemy.” Best of all is Camellion’s apparent unwillingness to curse, the harshest line he delivers being, “Ostritch crap!”

Which, sadly, pretty much sums up Blueprint Invisibility.

Finally, be sure to check out the Sharp Pencil blog, where Alan has been reviewing every single volume of the Death Merchant series!  Now that is commitment!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

C.A.D.S. #2: Tech Battleground

C.A.D.S. #2: Tech Battleground, by John Sievert
April, 1986  Zebra Books

If you’ve read Doomsday Warrior and wish there was more of it, you owe it to yourself to seek out the lesser-known C.A.D.S. series, which was by the same authors. And like Doomsday Warrior, I suspect that C.A.D.S. was more so the work of Ryder Syvertsen writing alone, as Tech Battleground is identical in style to that more famous series, which Syvertsen apparently wrote solo after the first four installments.

In fact, C.A.D.S. is so similar that you could hunt throughout the text and replace the names of various characters with the names of characters from Doomsday Warrior. Colonel Dean Sturgis becomes Ted Rockson, Tranh is Chen, Fenton is McLaughlin, and Marshal Veloshnikov is Colonel Killov. Everything, from the breathless storytelling style to the OTT violence and sex, is here; the only thing missing is the mutant monsters of the other series, though in exchange you get robotic armored suits.

Another series C.A.D.S. is very similar to is Victor Milan’s The Guardians – make that very similar to, with the same storyline in the first volume of the C.A.D.S. team rushing to save the Vice President, now the President, after the previous chief of state died in the nuclear war. And just as in The Guardians, this new president, Williamson, now lives on a military base with our heroes.

But really the series is basically Doomsday Warrior with robotic suits. There’s even an analogue of Century City’s chief scientist, in the form of Van Patten, who has created a Light Wave Amplifier, aka the LWA, a “laser subgun” which will explode if it’s fired too much and goes into the red. But Sturgis, ready to go back out in the field and fight the Russianss five weeks after the war began, thinks it might just be the edge they need to take on the better-equipped invading army. Also, the LWA as described sounds suspiciously like the pistol shown on the lame covers this series was graced with.

Sturgis is also fired up to reconnect with Robin, the ex-wife he still loves. Robin is in fact still alive, and the last we see her she’s made her way into Virginia, trying to reach the rendevous point she and Sturgis decided on in the first volume. But, just like the Rock-Rona-Kim triangle in Doomsday Warrior, Stacy brings up potential fireworks here with the introduction of hotstuff Dr. Sheila de Camp, chief psychologist of the C.A.D.S. base in White Sands, New Mexico, who in a handful of pages goes from hating Sturgis’s guts to planning to get in bed with him someday!

Meanwhile, the Russians are continuing their takeover of the US, and there appear to be three central Russian characters who will be important in the series: General Bukarov, who is situated in the White House; General Petrin, commander of the C.A.D.S.-style Gray Suits and military man who does not hate the Americans and in fact respects their soldiers; and finally Supreme Marshal Veloshnikov, who operates from the nuclear submarine Lenin and hates America with a passion, due to the death of his wife and child in Saigon in 1972, thanks to a bombing raid by the US military.

Intel at White Sands has learned that the Russians are planning a mass attack on Charleston, South Carolina, with the possible intent of leveling the entire city. Sturgis proposes “Operation Tech Battleground,” which is just a goofy name for “Let my C.A.D.S. soldiers go out and fight them!” After pointless internal squabble and discussion, Sturgis’s plan is approved and he choses his soldiers from the hundred or so who make up the C.A.D.S. force, also known as Delta Commando. Just like in Doomsday Warrior, the team is made up of Sturgis’s never-harmed “inner circle” and a whole bunch of redshirts who will die.

Completely following the template of that other series, the plot goes on to having Sturgis et al roar across the nuke-blasted countryside and taking on all kinds of freaks before they get to their destination. Most interesting is an obese millionaire who travels around in an armored limo, escorted by a tank and trucks, who is named Pinky Ellis. The CEO of Exrell Corporation, Ellis apparently will factor into later volumes; he willingly sold arms to the Russians, making their takeover of the US a reality.

Ellis also has taken captive Morgana Pinter, a hot-trot blonde who is now his complete slave. When Sturgis and team run into Ellis on the road, the man berates Sturgis for still giving a shit about America and asks him to team up with Ellis’s own crew. It develops into a battle in which, of course, Sturgis’s team makes short work of the opponent, however Ellis escapes in his limo, Morgana still a prisoner, and given how he’s mentioned later I suspect he will return again someday.

In Tennessee the team meets up with the descendants of the Hatfields, who are still at war with the McCoys. Otherwise they are friendly country folk, and invite the squad to their well-fortified hideout in the mountains. After a big feast, that other patented Ryder Stacy element presents itself – the OTT sex scene. This arises in the form of Anne, aka “Cat,” a busty and attractive local girl who leads Sturgis away for some explicit shenanigans – a scene that features the unforgettable line, “She sat up upon him and took in his hot manhood into her love-opening.”

Sturgis succeeds in uniting the Hatfields and McCoys for an attack on the invading Russians in Charleston. This sequence, despite being the main plot of the novel, occurs around midway through and doesn’t last very long. Here Sturgis and team destroy Russian ships in a massive fight, with an appareance of the Gray Suits onto the scene. Petrin has been ordered to capture one of the C.A.D.S. suits, and after the battle Sturgis isn’t sure if his missing men are KIA or are MIA – their suits taken away to be studied by the Russians.

I should mention that, when the action goes down, the author(s) as expected really let the guts fly. Heads explode, organs are blasted out, and in several memorable instances the C.A.D.S. soldiers literally rip Russian soldiers to shreds, or smash them into pulp with their metal hands. All of which is to say, Rydery Stacy (or Syvertsen alone) is one of those men’s adventure authors who clearly understood that total and utter exploitation is mandatory for this genre, whether it be sex or violence. There is no pretense at making it all seem like a straight sort of “regular” novel.

More focus is given to the slow escape of the C.A.D.S. men, fleeing from the pursuing Russians after having destroyed their plans to level Charleston. We get another of those bizarro scenes where, hiding in the Okefenoke swamp in Georgia, they are waylaid by “swamp Indians,” cannibalistic and tattooed freaks who zap around the swamp in weaponized swamp boats and really give the C.A.D.S. team – the armored suits almost inoperative due to drained power – a run for its money. The authors deliver their usual memorable sadism with the revelation that the Indians abduct women and keep them in iron cages, expressly for eating purposes!

The Okefenoke stuff also has repercussions for future novels, as further in the swamp the team discovers an old mansion on an island that was apparently built by runaway slaves, over a century before. Sturgis decides to make the mansion a forward base for any future operations on the east coast. In a “why not?” bit in the very last pages, Stacy also introduces a reincarnation motif, with Tranh looking at the grave of a slave named Cyrus and announcing that he was Cyrus in his previous life.

Sturgis basically takes this in stride, but he has other things on his mind – after a quick boosting of his armor’s power, he takes off to reconnect with Robin, who should be within a few hundred miles. And there the authors leave us, until next time.

Overall Tech Battleground was fun, if too long – like most other Zebra publications – but didn’t really provide the same sort of entertainment you get from the superior Doomsday Warrior books.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Golden Serpent (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #20)

The Golden Serpent, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes wrote several volumes of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, and supposedly is the series author who came up with the idea to have the novels be narrated by Carter himself. The Golden Serpent (which is stated as taking place in 1966) predates this first-person switchover and thus is told in third person, which as I’ve mentioned too many times is the style I prefer for the men’s adventure genre.

I was eager to read this volume, given the great writeup Andreas Decker gave it in The Paperback Fanatic #17. Not only that, my friends, but in this volume Stokes serves up my favorite type of pulp villain: an actual Nazi She-Devil. He doesn’t exploit the character as much as he could, but she is a whip-wielding hussy who, in the final pages at least, dons her jackboots and swastika armband…that is, right before she engages in mortal sexual combat with the Killmaster.

But as usual Stokes puts too many plots into one book, and doesn’t focus on the Nazi She-Devil alone. In fact, the inciting incident of The Golden Serpent is soon lost; counterfeit bills are threatening to destroy the US economy. When a greedy Mexican pilot crashes his plane over the US border, inside it is found a huge stash of the false money. At length we learn this dude was employed in an actual castle deep in Mexico, a castle owned by Gerda von Rothe, famous owner of a cosmetics emporium, and despite her platinum blonde hair and staggering body, reportedly 70 years old. Also, she runs roughshod over the locals, who refer to her as “The Bitch” – which, by the way, is how Stokes usually refers to her in the narrative.

This plotline is also murked up with vague mentions of “The Serpent Party,” a sort of Mexican radical movement looking to get California and a few other states back into Mexico’s control, as well as the possibility that a few Red China nuclear subs might be patrolling the Mexican and American coastlines. But despite the too-busy plotting, all is gradually eclipsed by Gerda von Rothe, who is of course the Nazi She-Devil. It’s just unfortunate that Stokes doesn’t focus on her from the beginning and instead serves up all these counterfeit currency/Serpent Party/nuclear subs red herrings which make for the big threat that gets everything going.

Meanwhile, Nick Carter’s on vacation, getting laid. Down in Mexico himself, he’s gotten cozy with a local gal who is the daughter of some influential businessman or something. But the girl’s a virgin, and demands that Carter take her virginity; after some internal debate, Carter does. However, no doubt due to the era it was published, the sex scenes in The Golden Serpent are quite vague, leaving everything to the reader’s imagination. While I prefer the pulpier plots of the ‘60s and ‘70s installments of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, it seems pretty clear that it was more sexually explicit in its otherwise un-pulpy ‘80s installments.

Speaking of pulp, Stokes as expected really pulps it up, to the point where it sort of gets goofy; for example, Carter is here often referred to as “Killmaster,” ie no “the.” This is just what Stokes did in the later Aquanauts series, where he referred to the main character as “Tiger Shark,” even though the guy’s name was William Martin. Also goofy is Stokes’s occasional reference to Carter as “the AXEman,” ie Carter’s employer AXE (which has since going on to making men’s hair gels and body sprays). However for the most part Stokes just refers to him as “Nick.” (And Stokes also has a knack for in-jokery, with Carter’s undercover name at one point being “Carter Manning,” and a mention of a “Miss Stokes” being the secretary of Nick’s boss, Hawk.)

But this time Carter doesn’t work for AXE; after too much setup, he’s on loan to the CIA, who friggin’ demands that Carter take a cyanide pill in one of his teeth. Also, since he’s smuggled into Mexico as a penniless gold pospector, Carter is denied his usual weapons, so there’s no Luger, stiletto, or weirdo “gas bomb” that he tapes to his balls. The CIA doesn’t think Gerda von Rothe’s castle has anything to do with the counterfeit curency, they just think the crashed pilot merely happened to be employed there, as the castle features the only airstrip in the area, and they want Carter to sort of bumble around and see what’s up.

Once Carter’s in position and playing out his drifter role, he soon begins to suspect that Gerda is in fact in on something, especially when he finds the murdered corpse of an old SS Nazi buried in the lake beside his shack. When Gerda herself shows up, the book picks up gear. She is of course stunningly gorgeous, with a body to match: a “tall woman with enormous firm breasts and an incredibly small waist.” Catching Carter in the act of bathing in the lake, the lady duly checks out his body and then tells him she wants to hire him for a special job.

Before Carter can meet her in her castle, he’s waylaid by agents of El Tigre, a Mexican bandit who works with the CIA and is pissed at them for not holding up to their various promises. This is more page-filling stuff, and not very interesting, other than El Tigre’s fondness for drinking mescal, which he also forces Carter to quaff. Even worse, when Carter finally gets to the Castle, Stokes completely skips over Gerda’s all-night employment of Carter’s sexual services, though we’re informed she’s insatiable and, of course, perverted.

In many ways The Golden Serpent is almost identical to the books Stokes would later write for the Richard Blade series. Carter, just like Blade, comes nude and confused into a twisted world of in-fighting, perversion, and murder. Gerda is just like the various hot-bodied and barely-clothed chicks Blade meets on his random hoppings around Dimension X, a coldly calculating man-eater who could very likely plunge a dagger in Carter’s back while he’s on top of her. And just like in those Richard Blade novels Carter here finds himself in the midst of genuine castle intrigue, with Gerda plotting against two men who have taken over the place and hiring Carter to kill them.

These two are Harper and Hurtada, the former an American who does the public relations for Gerda’s cosmetics empire, the latter a “Red Chinese” who has disguised himself as a Mexican. Stokes doesn’t really do too much to bring these guys to life, but apparently Harper is a KGB informant and Hurtada, obviously, is with the submarines that are patrolling the coastlines. And also apparently the Serpent Party is all a cover for the Red Chinese, and the counterfeit currency was one of their plots – it’s eventually revealed that Gerda’s mother smuggled the printing plates over to Mexico, after WWII, but they were useless until the Chinese provided the paper.

But really, all of this stuff is brushed aside and more focus is placed on Carter’s escape from Gerda. Stokes piles on the gothic stuff with Carter discovering the rat-eaten remains of the previous men who “serviced” Gerda, hidden deep in the bowels of the castle. There’s a climactic firefight that you don’t even realize is a climactic firefight, as Gerda’s uniformed castle guards take on the Red Chinese soldiers who have taken over the place, and Carter is caught in the middle. It’s nonetheless a good action scene that, while never too gory, at least adds more pulpy charm with Carter like some sort of superhero or something, who can “become Killmaster” when necessary.

The best is saved for last. Carter gets captured and is stripped naked and tied to a bed, where he’s whipped by Erma, Gerda’s female bodyguard who is apparently built like “a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers.” In this climactic section Gerda has, per Carter, shown her “true colors,” wearing her jackboots, black shirt (unbuttoned to the navel, so as to show off her breasts, naturally), and swastika armband. She even throws in a “Heil Hitler.” Given the old saw familiar from so many James Bond movies, Gerda blithely tells Carter anything he wants to know, given that, of course, he’ll be dead soon.

And of course the supernatural element is lost, as Gerda turns out to merely be 36, the whole “70-year-old” thing something dreamt up by PR man Harper. She is though rather randy, and Carter himself, despite the savage whipping, finds himself reacting to her beauty. Here Stokes delivers a finale that, as Andy Decker referred to it, is in “the top ten of pulp.” Stripping off her own clothes, Gerda cuts Carter loose and informs him he will have sex with her one more time – all while Erma sits watching, holding a submachine gun!

While it never gets very explicit, it’s still all very well-done, and as entertaining as anything I’ve ever read by Stokes, as Carter, “always at least two steps ahead,” satiates Gerda’s sexual needs while tonguing open the cap of his false toose and prying free that cyanide pill the CIA insisted he carry on the mission. Certainly one of the very few scenes you’ll ever read that features the hero fucking the villainess while trying to french kiss her with a deadly cyanide pill!

Stokes only proceeds to ramp it up, with Carter next in a knockdown, dragout fight with Erma, who nearly beats the shit out of him, including a memorable bit where she attempts to strangle him with one of her pig-tails. And as if all that wasn’t enough, Stokes even tosses in a bit of necrophilia, when El Tigre arrives in the aftermath of the battle, helps an injured Carter escape, and then carries out his oft-stated desire to rape “The Bitch” – even if she’s dead!

It took too long to get going – way too much time was spent on developing Carter’s cover story as a gold prospector – and had too many divergent, unsatisfactorily-resolved subplots, but The Golden Serpent was still a fun read, and definitely got better and better as it went along, culminating in one of the best climaxes I’ve ever read. I look forward to reading more of Stokes’s contributions to the series.

And special mention must be made of the UK Mayflower Books edition, the cover for which can be summed up in two words: Hot damn!!