Monday, March 31, 2014

Motive For Murder (aka Ryker #7)

Motive For Murder, by Edson T. Hamill
No month stated, 1975  Leisure Books

It doesn’t feature a series title or volume number, but this was actually the seventh volume of the Ryker series. Not that it much matters, as Motive For Murder works as a standalone novel, likely turned out by a writer new to the series – given the research of Justin Marriott in Paperback Fanatic #28, I’m assuming like him that Edson T. Hamill was just a Leisure house name.

But here’s the crazy thing – whoever actually wrote this was pretty good! In fact, Motive For Murder is easily my favorite Ryker novel yet. It combines the assholic “hero” of Nelson DeMille’s original creation with the goofy tone of Len Levinson's take on the character. “Hamill” has a good handle on character and action, and one could argue that his version of Ryker is even more of a dick than DeMille’s; as evidenced by how we’re introduced to our hero in this volume: “If there was anything Sergeant Joe Ryker despised more than homosexuals, it was long-haired hippies.”

This is just the tip of the iceburg, as in Motive For Murder Ryker beats up innocent people, threatens “friends,” and even puts children in danger in his effort to track down “The Cremator,” a homicidal woman who is taking young men home and torching them. She has killed three men so far (we meet her during her latest murder, as she sets fire to a guy by putting a candle to his long hair), and the cops haven’t gotten any leads in tracking her down. All that’s known from the precious few who have seen her is that the Cremator is gorgeous, fantastically built, and wears various wigs.

Ryker is still Ryker, but this volume almost takes place in some alternate reality: his fellow cops all have the same names as in previous installments, but act differently. For example Bo Lindly, the closest thing Ryker had to a friend in DeMille’s Night Of The Phoenix, here comes off like yet another of Ryker’s enemies, constantly mocked as an “Ivy League cop” by Ryker and the others. Lt. Fischetti is out to get Ryker fired, and this time Ryker’s partner is Tex Medley, a new character and junior cop who might as well be wearing a red shirt, if you catch my drift. Also, continuing with the alternate universe feel, we learn here that Ryker’s wife and son were murdered by the Mafia years ago, in retaliation upon Ryker, whereas in the DeMille books Ryker had no son and he was divorced, still getting in fights with his ex on the phone.

Ryker’s biggest archenemy in Motive For Murder is Creighton Straichey, a TV reporter who apparently has been hounding Ryker for years (though, needless to say, this is the first we readers have ever heard of him). Hamill delivers a few scenes where the two men come head to head, with Straichey determined to out Ryker as a fascist idiot, and Ryker always getting the last laugh. Some of the scenes are pretty comical, with Ryker confronting Straichey on the street or while he’s dining in a restaurant. However the ultimate outcome of the Ryker-Straichey confrontation is pretty dark, as I’ll mention later.

While Ryker is busy busting heads and confronting Straichey, Tex actually gets the first break in the case – he finds out from a witness that the Cremator was wearing a special lipstick, one that is available in only one place: Madame Olga Petrovia’s Instituit de Beaut, a cosmetics store in Manhattan. Almost fascistly run by the ancient Madame Olga (whose right arm is the immense Gerte von Tiffell), the place is obviously somehow connected the Cremator, but Ryker doesn’t connect the dots until much too late.

Meanwhile the Cremator continues her murders, and we see in one haunting scene that her kills can rake in innocent bystanders as well, like when she burns alive some poor message carrier and inadvertently sets an entire apartment building on fire. Hamill here proves his ease with killing off characters, as we read how a young wife and her newborn twins die in the conflagration. Oddly enough the Cremator actually sleeps with this victim, though her standard m.o. is to have the victim strip down, throw his clothes at the bottom of the bed, and jerk off onto the blue bedsheets(!!). Hamill doesn’t elaborate on why the Cremator screws this particular victim, though he does provide a fairly graphic description of it all.

Unlike DeMille, Hamill keeps everything rolling smoothly; the Cremator kills a few poor saps, Ryker butts heads and makes asinine comments (even getting thrown in jail at one point for harrassing a woman in an insane asylum!), and the city becomes increasingly agitated, thanks to Creighton Straichey’s broadcasts over the inability of the police to stop the killer. Hamill even delivers a few action scenes, like when Ryker is nearly offed by a hitman moments after leaving Madame Olga’s store (yet he still doesn’t put two and two together!). He also delivers a sex scene for Ryker, when Creighton Straichey’s wife Ondine calls Ryker over to her secret apartment and throws herself at him – a very funny scene, which sees Ryker still treating the poor lady like shit even as he deigns to let her blow him. (“You give good fuckin’ head,” being his sterling endorsement.)

But Ryker’s using of Ondine gets even darker in the novel’s finale. After a few characters have been knocked off by the Cremator (who of course turns out to be connected to Madame Olga), Ryker comes up with one of his dumbass plans; he forces Ondine to draft her teenaged son, Mervyn, to pose as a delivery boy so as to capture the Cremator’s attention. The climax plays out in Madame Olga’s store and here Hamill once again displays his ease with killing off various characters. In fact by novel’s end Ryker is so despicable – even still threatening a character whose life he has ruined – that you just have to laugh at the dark comedy of it all.

Anyway, I have to say I really liked Motive For Murder, and I wonder if this same author served as “Edson T. Hamill” for any of the other Ryker novels. About the only complaint I could make is his tendency to POV-hop, with character perspectives jarringly changing between paragraphs, but I’m thinking this might’ve been the usual half-assed “editing” at Leisure at work.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Drug Of Choice

Drug Of Choice, by John Lange
January, 1970  Signet Books

John Lange was a pseudonym Michael Crichton used between 1966 and 1972, for a total of eight novels, most of them paperback originals. I think this is the first Crichton novel I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it – however word seems to be that the “Lange” books are more pulpy than those bearing Chrichton’s name, and also that this particular novel, Drug Of Choice, is even different than the rest. But man, if all Crichton books were like this, I’d be a big fan.

This short novel, barely 200 pages, takes place right in the psychedelic late ‘60s, roping in everything from rock groups to mind control. Crichton’s writing is so economical that you barely notice it; the closest comparison I could think of would be Richard Stark. His skill with quickly setting scenes and introducing characters is pretty incredible, and you see how he used the Lange years to hone his writing style.

Our hero is Dr. Roger Clark, who works in the emergency ward at LA Memorial Hospital. His normal life is thrown off track one night by the appearance of an apparently comatose Hell’s Angel, who crashed out in front of a police witness and has been in a deep sleep ever since, with no apparent damage to his body. This is strange enough, but then Clark notices blue urine in the bottle beneath the biker’s bed. But the next morning the urine has changed to a normal color, and everyone thinks Clark is nuts. Then the biker wakes up, as if nothing’s wrong, and leaves in perfect health, with no memory of the previous night or even of the bike crash.

A few weeks later a similar case appears – this time it’s the beautiful Sharon Wilder, a famous actress. Brought into the hospital in an apparent comatose state, she too expels blue urine, and Clark of course begins to suspect something’s going on. And just like the biker, Sharon wakes up the next day in perfect health, with no memory of passing out or any other foul play. Indeed she begins hitting on Clark, asking him on a date – and takes him to bed that night.

But Clark wakes up the next morning with no memory of having spent the night with one of Hollywood’s most famous leading ladies. Sharon acts as if nothing’s odd, and asks him out again. She brings him into the jet-set world, and there follows a sequence where Clark goes to a party on a yacht one night and meets a variety of unusual characters. This portion for some reason reminded me of early Don DeLillo; in fact a lot of Drug Of Choice comes off as DeLillo-esque, with our protagonist experiencing missing time and other unexplained phenomena, all relayed in very cold, almost detached prose.

One thing Clark does learn is that Sharon’s on a special drug, a pill which he’s certain is what causes the memory lapses and blue urine. He goes about researching it, and Sharon as well. This latter research leads him to Sharon’s psychiatrist, Dr. Shine, who informs Clark that Sharon suffered delusions that some corporation was controlling her mind – a delusion, he says, that lots of Hollywood stars suffer from. It’s all very strange and very MK Ultra-esque. As for the drug, eventually Clark learns that it’s the product of Advance, Inc, a California-based corporation run by a certain Dr. Harvey Blood.

The novel continues on its weird course when Clark shows up to ask Blood questions – and ends up being asked if he wants to work for Advance! The corporation owns an island in the Caribbean, Eden Island (formerly San Cristobal island), in which they’ve built a modern and opulent resort. Blood not only wants Clark to begin working for them as a drug researcher, but also to visit the resort. And this isn’t the first he’s heard of it, as Sharon has also mentioned it – and indeed has told Clark she’ll be heading there in a few weeks.

That disconnected feel ensues as Clark next goes out with Dr. Shine’s secretary, who enthusiastically pops pills during dinner and then invites Clark home with her – and not only does he wake up alone in his own bed days later, but he once again has no memory of events. But due to his missing time he’s also missed his scheduled trip to Mexico (which his travel agent tried to talk him out of, telling him he should go to Eden Island instead)…and so, conveniently enough, he’s free to go with Sharon Wilder when she calls and asks him to go to Eden Island with her.

Advance, Inc comes off like a pretty interesting, if mysterious, organization. Founded by doctors with the express intent of using science for capital gain, the company has its tentacles in all avenues of society. Clark, researching them, discovers that they apparently got their start with the discovery of SVD, “shark venereal disease,” which they turned into a drug. From there they founded the resort community, which is claimed to be state of the art in all respects, and the answer to any vacationer’s dream. To get there though one must fly to Nassau, Florida, and then board a windowless plane, owned by the company, which flies passengers to the secret location of the island.

The novel goes further into weird psychedelia once the sunny paradise of Eden Island is revealed to be nothing more than a drug trip – and when Clark wakes up to find all his memories false, he’s further stunned to learn that he was awoken on purpose, as he’s now an employee of Advance! Apparently he signed a contract that day he visited Blood, and now they expect him to oversee the resort (which is a rundown shambles in reality), ensuring that the “customers” are not injured during their drug-induced vacation. When Clark tries to escape, Advance shows him that their drug (which has no name, and thus is just called the “drug of choice”) can be used to instill horrific pain.

It all continues to become even more joyfully weird with Clark placed in more psychic, drugged torment; eventually back in LA with Advance, he’s next tasked with picking the woman who will become Glow Girl. Looking to break into the rock market, Advance wants to promote a group that will sing about science and how beneficial it is; they’ve already recorded the LP (“Six Inch Incision” by Glow Girl and the Scientific Coming), they just need a suitably attractive girl to play the part of Glow Girl. Shortly thereafter, through more MK Ultra-esque means, Clark becomes a happy worker for Advance, and the novel just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

If there’s any problem with Drug Of Choice, it’s that it wraps up too quickly. I would’ve enjoyed seeing Crichton play out this creepy story a bit further. But as it is, Clark soon comes back to himself and begins plotting vengeance – something he finds very hard to do, given how cozy Advance is with the police and the government. Also the fate of certain characters, like brainwashed Advance drone Sharon Wilder, is left unexplored, however Clark does bump into Glow Girl in the final page.

For years Drug Of Choice was impossible to find, and the original Signet edition and 1974 Bantam reprint were super expensive (and still are). Luckily Hard Case Crime brought the book back into print in November, 2013, so it’s now easily available for those who want to check it out. And I’d recommend you do, as this is a very cool book, and so breezily and capably written that you’ll speed through it in no time. 

Here’s the cover for that 1974 Bantam reprint, which is my favorite of them all:

And here’s the 2013 Hard Case Crime edition, which stays true to the imprint’s painted-cover theme:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mace #4: The Year Of The Dragon

Mace #4: The Year Of The Dragon, by Lee Chang
No month stated, 1974  Manor Books

Joseph Rosenberger turns in another installment of the Mace series, and thank god there’s only one more Rosenberger volume to go. Seriously, The Year Of The Dragon is a straight-up beating of a novel, mercilessly pounding the reader into a lethargic stupor of boredom. Now let me tell you all about it!

Once again coming off like a Chinese clone of the Death Merchant, Victor Mace is a walking, talking cipher who blitzes his way through the opposition without breaking a sweat, let alone taking any damage. Mace, that “kung fu monk-master” as Rosenberger constantly refers to him, is up in Seattle looking into the disappearance of the Ming Do Chun, a Ming dynasty statue worth around five million dollars. A gift from China, in exchange for artistic gifts of similar worth from America, the statue went missing during its shipment to the US, and now Mace and his CIA fellows are working with “Red China” secret agents to track it down.

There’s even less character or plot development this time out than previously, which is really saying something. The Year Of The Dragon is hinged around three massive action sequences, and not much more. Mace rarely even speaks in the novel, with the “plot development” mostly relegated to his Seattle handler, Darren Crawford, and a group of Chinese agents whose names get confusing and who are even less developed than Mace. As usual it’s the villains who are more memorable, a hapless trio who through some hazily-explained ruse have gotten hold of the Ming Do Chun.

We know from page one that these crooks – Kirk Bogue, Harry Bothers, and Manny Zoe – have the statue, yet it still takes around 190 pages of small print for Mace and his colleagues to get it from them. The novel opens on the first of those three big action sequences, as Mace et al raid Kirk Bogue’s warehouse, where they think the statue is hidden. The ensuing action scene is practically endless, and sadly a sign of things to come, as Mace cripples and kills an army of thugs. And after all that, the statue isn’t even there!

Here we get one of the few dialog scenes, where Mace and the various agents sit around and talk about…well, not the case, as you’d expect, but instead about the imminent collapse of the United States, and how China ain’t much better. There’s some egregious right wing sermonizing here, with Mace basically stating that America should enforce martial law. That all of this radical rhetoric is coming from a “kung fu monk-master” from Hong Kong doesn’t seem very strange to Crawford and the other CIA agents, who basically just let Mace do whatever he wants throughout.

Rosenberger does work in some references to his other creations, though, with the Chinese rep asking for the assistance of the Death Merchant or the Murder Master (another Rosenberger creation, who featured in a three-volume series of that name for Manor around this time), but the CIA tells him they’re busy at the moment! But this little sequence, maybe a page or two, is about the only moment of levity in The Year Of The Dragon. Rosenberger seems to be in dead earnest throughout, which as usual makes for a pretty confounding read, as you wonder how any sane person could sit down and write crap like this in earnest. 

The second major action sequence has Mace and Chinese agent Lt. Ko mounting a nighttime raid on a freighter upon which they think the statue might be stored. Here’s the kicker, though – we readers know that it isn’t there, and yet Rosenberger delivers a 45-page action scene as Mace and Ko beat to shit and kill an endless tide of gangsters during their assault upon the ship! It’s all just a massive waste of time – and again, given the tiny print, you wonder why the hell Rosenberger even bothered.

The final action sequence is also the finale, as Mace et al launch an attack upon a foundry, and here at long last the Ming Do Chun really is being held. This final battle is even more taxing than those that came before. And again Rosenberger gets off on informing us all kinds of incidental details about various thugs who pop up out of the woodwork, take a swing or shot at Mace, and then get killed by him for their efforts. The same holds true for the few comrades of Mace who get killed in the assault; they die, Rosenberger documenting their death like it’s a big deal, and you have no idea who in hell they were in the first place.

However Rosenberger is truly in his element when it comes to the racist invective. Mace is once again called “Chink” so many times that you start to think it’s his name, and Rosenberger describes the Chinese agents as either “moon-faced rickshaw drivers” or “moon-faced laundrymen.” He unleashes his biggest ammo on the black characters: “black-as-tar North African coon,” “black boob,” and even “jungle bunny” are all terms used to describe what few blacks appear in the novel – and of course, all of them are thugs. And when they have dialog, Rosenberger writes it in all-caps pidgin English, so they come off like monsters straight out of some reactionary’s view of hell: “CHINK MOTHERFUKKER YOU! WE GONNA STOMP YORE ASS!” That’s an actual quote from the book, misspellings and all.

Again, I must thank the gods of Shaolin or whoever that Rosenberger only wrote one more volume of Mace. The finale of The Year Of The Dragon seems to lead right into this next volume, in fact, with Mace disappearing after the final battle and heading off for his next adventure – which I’m sure will be just as endlessly-detailed and tedious as this one was.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Hype!, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1977  Fawcett Gold Medal

Hype! was my Harold Robbins novel, but as usual I could only cover the material in my own way. It contains incredible amounts of vulgarity. One of the characters is based loosely on Jacqueline Onassis. I’ll probably burn in hell for what I did to that poor woman. -- Len Levinson, in a July 2012 email to me

Published not long after The Bar Studs, Hype! tells the tale of a New York City Public Relations firm, its wacky clients and its even wackier employees. Despite what Len wrote above, the novel really isn’t much like Harold Robbins – the characters are too three-dimensional for that, and you can tell that Len, unlike Robbins, is actually having fun writing – but it is a lot like The Bar Studs, in that it’s about a fairly large cast of eclectic characters in funky ‘70s NYC.

But whereas the characters in that earlier weren’t connected, the ones in Hype! all interract in various ways. Our “hero” is Mike Brown, a hustling PR man who works for the Larry Walters agency. Mike’s life is hectic to say the least. Over the course of the novel he oversees several campaigns, hurries crosstown from one meeting to another, creates a nationwide movement, nearly gets trampled in a “free hamburger day” event, introduces an unknown French starlet to the US, gets in a fight with rioting Women's Libbers, and attempts to become a svengali for another promising actress. And this is just his work life – he’s also a dopesmoking, coke-snorting, skirt-chasing alpha male who is always right. (So in this respect the novel sort of is like a Robbins novel, as Mike is very much a Robbins type of protagonist, only with a lot more depth.)

Mike’s boss Larry Walters also gets his share of the narrative; heavyset and balding, he’s just as shrewd and crafty as his underlings, and indeed urges them to get more outrageous with their efforts. Len also develops a humorous banter between Larry and Mike, with Mike constantly asking for a raise because he does a “good job” and Larry responding, “I don’t pay you to do a bad job, do I?” Larry’s storyline has him being approached for representation by the most famous woman in the world: Diane Auberville, the above-mentioned Jackie Onassis analogue. Twice widowed (her first husband an assassinated American politician, her second a Greek shipping magnate), Diane now wants to branch out from her “ditzy society girl” image and looks to Larry to steer her toward something more fulfilling.

As for Diane, she too gets her own plot. In her 40s and still ravishing, Diane has a teenaged son named Jasper from her first marriage. Jasper is gay, and a minor plot has him basically cruising around Christopher Street looking for hook-ups. Not only that, but Diane is apparently in an incestuous relationship with her brother, Anthony, but truth be told this plot point really goes nowhere and has no development, other than a few cursory mentions in the narrative and some later threats from Jasper – when his mother refuses to let him move into his own apartment on Christopher Street, he threatens to let it out that she’s been screwing her own brother.

Then there’s Sharon Edmonson, a gorgeous and well-endowed blonde who can’t get a break – she’s too voluptious for modeling and she’s been unable to land a part that will lead to her big break. She enters the novel early, as one of the random group of models hired by Mike for his latest scheme, promoting the release of a film titled The Brass Bed by having a group of bikini-clad young women carry a brass bed across Times Square, despite the fact that it’s 40 degrees out. The event, tepid as it is (which even Mike admits) garners a media turnout, but more importantly serves as Sharon’s introduction into the narrative.

Hype!, rather than telling a single plot, instead comes off like a series of misadventures these various characters experience. For Mike it’s hustling one person or business after another, with little time for a private life – but then, Mike just combines the two. While on the job he snorts tons of cocaine, smokes dope, and even manages to have sex with a Stag Club “Pony” in the Stag Club itself, snorting some coke with the gal and then doing her up against the wall. Throughout the novel he’ll randomly head on over to the apartment of his drug dealer, Perce Washington, a black guy who has a constant party going on (that is until he smokes some Nepalese hash, which sends Perce into a three-day meditative trip in which he questions reality).

The highlight of the book, and the scene Len mentioned above, comes midway through, when Mike returns home after a trip to Perce’s in which he’s picked up some of that Nepalese hash, as well as a bottle of Amora, an imported aphrodesiac which Perce assures him is effective. First though Mike stops off to drop off some of the drugs with Anthony, Diane Auberville’s brother, who earlier asked Mike to score him some – and Mike has earlier met the famous lady, having handled the delicate situation of getting her son Jasper out of jail after his arrest for some public gang-banging, keeping the entire matter out of the media.

You know it’s headed somewhere when Anthony asks Mike to have a seat and smoke some hash with him. Diane’s interested but has never tried it, and easily enough the two guys have her joining them as they pass back and forth a potent joint. Now, given Anthony and Diane’s incestual relationship, I assumed Len was going to go somewhere crazy with this, but instead Anthony announces he has to pick up a friend from the airport and leaves Mike and Diane alone. Mike, realizing he’s here with one of the most famous women in the world, no less while she’s stoned out of her gourd, decides he has a prime opportunity.

Spiking Diane’s orange juice (and his own) with some of the Amora, Mike thus makes the “Fame Goddess” super horny, to the point where she’s asking him to screw her. And Mike happily complies, all the while marveling over this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Obviously Mike has perpetrated some sort of rape, but Len has already established that Diane herself isn’t the most wholesome of women. And hell, it was the ‘70s. But regardless of the moral implications one could draw, the sequence is played moreso for laughs – and also, Len never writes from a moral high horse, which I’ve always enjoyed. His characters do rotten things, and Len leaves it up to you whether you think they’re scum or not.

Diane meanwhile goes on with her public makeover, first as a champion of the ecology movement, then as a feeder of the poor. This entails a sequence similar to Mike’s “free hamburger” fiasco in which Diane and Larry fly down to a hardscrabble section of West Virginia and attempt to hand out food; the people riot, and Larry comes up with the last-ditch idea of saving Diane’s image by having her fake a heart attack. It’s curious though that Len has two PR events that entail the handing out of free food – either he was missing regular food in his remote cabin when he wrote the manuscript (see below) or this was a typical maneuver he’d employ back in his own PR days.

Around this time Larry hands Mike his next project – turning the unknown French actress Genevieve Benoit into a star. Featured in a softcore piece of lesbian exploitation titled Daughters Of Lesbos, Genevieve is engaged to Richard Davis, president of Ambassador Pictures, who demands that Genevieve be turned into a huge deal for the American public, despite that she’s a nobody even in France. Davis is notorious for picking up women, grooming them to be stars, and then immediately dumping them (coincidentally enough, right around the time he’s gotten bored of screwing them and has discovered another object of his lust), but regardless Mike takes to the job with his usual gusto.

This leads to the aforementioned social movement Mike engineers – that of “Breast Liberation,” which Mike comes up with on the spot when Genevieve arrives at the airport. From here we have many scenes where a topless Genevieve will meet with gobsmacked reporters and industry people, telling them that breasts should be free. Even though it’s all just some random idea Mike came up with, and Genevieve is just mouthing the words he’s written for her, the idea sparks the public imagination and soon women across the country are going topless. Genevieve however is promptly shuffled out of the novel, and plus Davis is no longer interested in her and doesn’t plan to marry her. Also, Genevieve doesn’t have the expected sex with Mike, turning him down cold but showing a definite interest in Mike’s drug dealer, Perce.

Mike gradually sets his sights on Sharon Edmonson, whom he bumps into again at a bar, having forgotten about her from the Brass Bed event. He ends up taking her home, sating his Genevieve-spawned lust on the girl (Len skimps over the details of this scene, for some reason). But later Mike realizes that Sharon actually has the potential to become star talent. Sick of never being paid for his hard work for Larry, Mike comes up with the idea to become a svengali for Sharon, a talent agent solely dedicated to this one client, using his vast industry contacts and hustling skills to turn her into a phenomenon. Currently cast in a small role in the upcoming Amassador Pictures mafia movie Capo, Sharon shows all the signs of being a star to be.

But those who know Len’s work will know it’s not headed for a happy ending – rather than be grateful to Mike for the time and money he’s personally spending on her, Sharon instead comes to hate him, angry over how he thinks he can just boss her around and sleep with her whenever he wants. And when she gets a call from Richard Davis, who has seen some publicity photos of Sharon (photos which Mike has had her pose for and which he paid for himself), she suspects she won’t much need Mike Brown anymore. And sure enough, Davis extends an offer to her to become a bigger actress, and he’ll even try to get her representation with the William Morris agency. All this leads to a huge blowout as a gloating Sharon kicks Mike out of her apartment, and Mike implores her to understand that Davis is notorious for promising starlets the world, screwing them, and then dumping them.

My only criticism of Hype! is that it seems to be leading toward a wild conclusion which ties everything together, but instead Len sticks with a chaotic feel, which I suppose is more realistic. But still, the potential was there for the novel to reach a calamitous climax along the lines of the unforgettable Oscar Awards ceremony in James Robert Baker’s Boy Wonder, as the various characters all converge upon the opening of Capo. Len well sets up the scene, and it appears it’s all leading to some fireworks, with Richard Davis showing up with Sharon Edmonson (having just unceremoniously humped her in her apartment before leaving for the event) but immediately ditching her for Diane Auberville, who has been brought here by Larry Walters. And meanwhile Mike is staring daggers into Sharon, who realizes no one has ever looked at her with such hatred before.

But instead of the fireworks I wanted, the novel instead ends with lots of foreshadowing – Richard Davis walks into the theater with Diane, telling her he’s got a new movie coming up that she’ll just be perfect for (his standard line for any actress he’s trying to score with), and Sharon, all alone in the theater, looks outside and sees Mike chatting with the Mayor of New York, who’s also come to the Capo opening. Ramming it home that Mike, the guy who believed in her talent, the guy who could’ve actually made her a star, is the guy she's just made into an enemy. Indeed it’s sort of a sad ending, as you feel bad for Sharon, despite it all being her own fault. And as for Mike's future -- he pops up again briefly in The Last Buffoon, as an old friend from Frapkin's PR days.

The other month Len was kind enough to send me his thoughts on Hype!. He mentions the current prices of used copies of the book toward the end of the essay; safe to say, Hype! is pretty scarce, and believe it or not the only copy currently listed on is priced at $400. However, a little searching will turn up the book at much more reasonable prices. I got my own copy for under two dollars from an Amazon Marketplace seller in 2012, and when Len wrote me that he’d heard copies were now at $400, I went over to Amazon again and found a few more copies in the single digits.

But by all means, do not pay $400 for a copy of Hype!. Asshole booksellers like that should be ignored.

Hype! was intended to be my big breakout novel. I wrote it after the success of The Bar Studs which sold around 95,000 copies. I wanted to build on the success of The Bar Studs and perhaps sell 250,000 copies. 

Someone reading this might be tempted to comment: “What a crass, mercenary writer. No wonder he failed. Evidently all the wretch cares about is money.” 

Please allow me to point out that I never was independently wealthy. No devoted wife was supporting me. I didn’t have a day job such as teaching English at a prestigious New England liberal arts college. I was never good-looking or charming enough to be a gigolo. And NYC landlords have this thing about the rent. They want it or they’ll throw your ass into the street without any qualms. 

No one becomes a novelist to make money. People write novels because they’re driven. And perhaps I was more driven than most because I’ve always been and continue to be mildly to moderately nuts. 

I wondered what to write after The Bar Studs. But I didn’t need to wonder long. Because the premise had been in the forefront of my mind for a long time, a Harold Robbins-type show biz novel based on my ten years as press agent in the entertainment industry. I’d worked for Paramount Pictures, 20th Century-Fox and a PR agency named Solters and Sabinson, which means I’d seen the underside of show biz, not the glossed over crap one finds in the media. 

I’m not Harold Robbins. He and I have experienced different facets of the biz. We have different worldviews. I don’t even try to imitate other writers because I know it’s impossible. I am what I am for better or worse. 

I wrote Hype! in a rackety cabin without electricity or plumbing in a remote forest in New Brunswick Canada, around 40 miles north of the provincial capital, Frederickton. What the hell was I doing in such an unlikely place? Let me take you back to circa 1974. I was living in Greenwich Village and my second wife was driving me out of my mind. I thought it might be wise to put a national boundary between us. My old buddy Bill Kotzwinkle and his wife Elizabeth had relocated to that part of Canada. Both were writers and we understood each other. That’s how I ended up in a rundown cabin, sitting beside a wood stove, writing on a manual typewriter during a fierce Canadian winter, using an outhouse. Sometimes I felt like the Jewish Jack London. 

I believed that I saw NYC more clearly in that cabin than when I was living in NYC and drowning in it. Distance and a change of surroundings provided an interesting new perspective that I hoped would add substance and verisimilitude to the novel. 

To the best of my recollection, I wrote The Bar Studs the first year I was there, Hype! the second year, and The Bandit And The Ballerina the third year. The latter never was published and I don’t know what happened to the manuscript. 

Anyway, Hype! is about a hustling unscrupulous press agent based loosely on me. His boss, Larry Walters, was based loosely on my last boss Lee Solters, one of the great legendary press agents. If you don’t believe me, check Wikipedia. Other characters also were based loosely on real people, some of them very famous. 

All my churning emotions, feelings and observations about show biz were poured into this morally atrocious novel. I held nothing back. Let me be clear: I had seen close-up and personal the squalid underbelly of show biz in addition to glitter and glitz. I met big stars who turned out to be ordinary screwed-up people like you and me, but they were rich and loved by millions. I also met many egomaniacs and once worked for a producer/director named Radley Metzger whose arrogance and cruelty were almost beyond human comprehension.*  I also ran into lots of struggling would-be stars who never made it and had to live with the bitter taste of failure. 

I called the novel The Shucksters. After completing and editing the text, I mailed it to my then literary agent, the very wonderful Elaine Markson. Eventually she sold it to Fawcett, same company that published The Bar Studs. Fawcett changed the title to Hype! My editor Harvey Gardner explained that most Americans probably didn’t know what a shuckster was. I wasn’t very happy with the murky cover that didn’t stand out against other novels in bookstores. The graphic artist used a strange kind of typeface that made Hype! look like Hypel. Talks with Harvey left me with the impression that Fawcett execs hadn’t liked the novel. After several months it became clear that Hype! was a big flop. I think it only sold around 20,000 copies, very little for a mass market paperback.It was one of the greatest professional disappointments of my life, but I didn’t realize that even greater disappointments were to come. 

Joe Kenney asked me to write something to accompany his review of Hype!. So I read the novel for the first time since completing the manuscript circa 1975. 

To my immense satisfaction, I thought it very good and quite possibly one of the great American show biz novels of all time. However I must admit it’s as sleazy as the subject itself. And it’s also kind of vicious, definitely not a pretty novel. Evidently I was an angry man when I wrote it, making uncomplimentary observations about all sorts of people and institutions, and especially contemptuous of the hypocrisies of the then-new Women’s Liberation Movement, which probably explains why Fawcett execs, many of them women, disliked Hype!. Such a novel probably could never be published in today’s politically-correct climate. 

Hype! was one of my early novels, written before I really understood my craft, not that I’m such a great expert now. Its worst flaw, in addition to my nasty point of view, was too much description of unimportant activity such as characters walking here and there, or taking elevators , riding in taxicabs, or eating a corned beef sandwich. 

Not long after writing Hype!, I had a conversation with my buddy Bill Kozwinkle. He’d noticed and disapproved of my pointless descriptions of activity, and gave me advice which I wrote into my notebook as he spoke. He said, “Fiction isn't a movie. You needn't show every movement and twitch. Fiction is the realm of inner mind, the second level of reflection.” 

I really thought about that comment and took it to heart. It made a big difference in how I wrote afterwards. For context, Bill Kotzwinkle wrote what some critics consider the greatest novel of 60s, The Fan Man, now available as an e-book. He also wrote the novelization of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, best-selling novel internationally of the 80s. 

One of my readers informed me recently that paperback copies of Hype! are selling for $400 on the internet. It’s not available yet as an e-book. I’m not gonna pay to e-publish it myself. That’s not my game. If somebody else wants to e-publish it, he or she will find me most reasonable.

*Radley was no saint, but did make some very sexy movies. My favorite was Therese And Isabelle. And there are two sides to every story. If you asked Radley about me, he probably wouldn't remember me, or would call me incompetent, although I'm the guy who arranged for him to lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, which probably was the high point of his life.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox (aka Fringe #1)

Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox, by Christa Faust
May, 2013  Titan Books

Fringe ran for five seasons, from 2008 to 2012, and I never watched it during its original broadcast run on Fox. I was aware of it, though; I recall a coworker sometime in 2009 raving about it, and I was like, “You mean that show with the guy from Dawson’s Creek?” But I never watched it. 

Then last year a friend who shares many of my interests was telling me how much he enjoyed Fringe, and how much he knew I’d like it. So I went out and got Seasons 1-4 on Blu Ray for a pittance, thanks to Black Friday deals (getting the fifth season for cheap a year later, as well).  Still I procrastinated on watching the show. I mean, I watched Lost as it aired, and I grew to hate that show, and I didn’t want to be burned again.

But man, when I finally got around to watching Fringe, my initial reaction was, “Where’s this show been all my life?” Within the first half hour of the pilot episode resident “mad scientist” Walter Bishop was clapping his hands and announcing, “Let’s make some LSD!” The series covered a lot of ground in its five seasons, from X-Files-eque procedurals in the first to a final season that took place in a dystopian 2036. And it was all great, and unlike most shows it was made to be watched over and over – and unlike Lost, the finale was actually memorable and effective.

Fringe was never a killer in the ratings, but the fanbase was strong enough that Titan Books must’ve decided there would be a market for some TV tie-ins. It appears that they then approached Christa Faust, an author known for TV tie-ins (as well as her own material), and hired her to write a trilogy of Fringe prequels. (“Everybody loves prequels!” – Homer Simpson)  Also these books would apparently be “official,” and not only part of the show’s cannon but even approved by production company Bad Robot. (Though I admit, the jaded half of me figures this “approval” was mostly relegated to: “Okay, how much are we gonna make offa these books?”)

The Zodiac Paradox then is the first of this prequel trilogy, and details a backstory concerning Walter Bishop, easily my favorite character in the series. But this is a much younger Walter, 22 years old and fresh out of doctoral school when the novel opens in August, 1969. Faust shows that she’s at least familiar with the characters by opening with Walter in the middle of an LSD experiment, conducted with his colleage Dr. William Bell (Leonard Nimoy in the actual series).

The two young doctors are looking to meld their minds (surely a Star Trek in-joke) with a new LSD batch as they sit near Reiden Lake, a spot that only exists in the world of Fringe, in New York state. Meanwhile, in the alternate universe (a Fringe mainstay that wasn’t fully introduced until the second season), a killer named Allan Mather is on the run from the cops. Despite stalking his prey in the alternate-reality Reiden Lake, Mather too is hopped up on LSD – personally I don’t see how the guy would be able to even hold a knife, let alone run through the countryside as the cops chase him.

Through some nebulous means Walter and Bell open a rift between the universes with their LSD-linked minds, and, given his own altered state, Mather not only links minds with them, but also sees the rift on the other side, and falls through it as the cops surround him. Now this killer is loose in our world, Walter and Bishop having no idea where he came from. In fact this prequel has it that only during this adventure do the two men realize there even is an alternate reality…but then, given that a serial killer comes from over there, one must wonder why Walter and Bell would’ve gone on to so desperately try to breach the rift between the two worlds in later years, per Fringe lore.

In the early half of the book Faust spends more time with Mather, as we see him slowly realizing that he’s in an alternate reality. And after killing his alternate-reality self he decides to stick around and continue his killing spree here, under the guise of the Zodiac Killer. Personally I think this was a mistake on Faust’s part; I think the novel would’ve been stronger had Mather not been a real-life killer. And anyway, the Zodiac’s murders began before 1968. But regardless, Mather now calls himself the Zodiac Killer, and you have to at least give the guy credit for quickly adapting to changing environments!

Faust next cuts forward to September, 1974, and the focus is back on Walter and Bell. Both of them are now in San Francisco, conveniently enough, delivering a lecture. Of course, SanFran is the Zodiac’s stomping grounds, and Walter’s on edge because, on that night back on Reiden Lake when his mind was briefly linked with Mather’s, Walter saw Dead Zone-style a murder Mather would commit sometime in September, 1974. Walter, hardly ever getting out of his lab, let alone Boston, hasn’t heard much about the Zodiac Killer, but once some locals tell him about the murderer he realizes that this must be the man he and Bell encountered on Reiden Lake.

Walter and Bell take it upon themselves to stop him. At least they try to go to the cops first, but after hearing their crazy story the police brush them off – only for an FBI agent named Latimer to take them into custody. In one of the novel’s many logic lapses, Bell instantly deduces that they shouldn’t trust Latimer, and the two escape, only to run into another FBI agent, this one named Iverson. Claiming to be the originator of a “fringe” division in the Bureau, Iverson is on the outs with his colleagues and has been receiving notes from the Zodiac, who claims to be from another universe. Iverson hands over his casefiles to Walter and Bell, figuring they’ll have a better chance of cracking the complex Zodiac ciphers.

The novel now becomes a bit trying as Walter and Bell become amateur crimebusters, making one idiotic move after another. True, Walter would often rush off into the fray with little forethought in the series, but then this was an older Walter, one who’d recently gotten out of an insane asylum and had portions of his brain removed (more of which below). So for the same sort of thing to happen here, particularly with Bell going along, comes off as kind of dumb. Eventually Walter and Bell meet up with Nina Sharp (a perfectly-cast Blair Brown in the series), a young acquaintance of Bell’s (who is set up by Faust as a ladykiller here…seriously, did women find ‘70s-era Leonard Nimoy sexy??).

Nina and Bell had a strange romantic history in Fringe, the writers never making clear what actually happened between them (not helped by the fact that Leonard Nimoy only appeared in a handful of episodes, and never shared a scene with Blair Brown). At any rate here young Nina is herself a doctorate student, as sharp and ingenious as the boys, and she and Bell share a playful bantering. Having recently rewatched Altered States, it was easy to picture a younger Blair Brown here, and Faust does a good job of bringing her character to life.

In fact Nina is the only one with a square head on her shoulders, smart enough to bring a revolver along when rushing out into the fray with Walter and Bell. She also brings the early ‘70s acid rock movement into the story, as her San Francisco home is currently occupied by various members of Violet Sedan Chair, a Fringe universe rock group often stated as being Walter’s favorite band. Faust goes too far with the in-jokery, though, with Walter meeting group leader Roscoe Joyce, a keyboardist who was played in a Season 3 episode by Christopher Lloyd; Faust has the two meet, and Roscoe makes a prophetic utterance that they will meet again someday, but neither of them will remember having met here in 1974. Pretty lame.

Speaking of ’74, Faust also does a good job of capturing the era. Unlike most modern-day creators who santize the past, Faust actually has Nina going out to buy cigarettes! Drugs are also rampant, with mass partakings of LSD. Even better, Faust understands the whole New Age/self-help movement that was all the rage at the time, with talk of biofeedback and mind expansion. There’s even a brief visit to a clinic wholly devoted to biofeedback research, and you can just picture the white-garbed, frazzled-haired post-hippies in attendance. But unfortunately most of this is obscured by the bumbling Keystone Cops-esque shenanigans of Walter and Bell.

Things gradually build to a head as Walter and Bell crack various Zodiac ciphers, thwarting a few of his kills, but putting themselves (particularly Nina) in jeopardy. But once the duo realize that their LSD mind-meld caused the rift between worlds, they invoke a masterplan involving a batch of biofeedback enthusiasts and more of that special LSD. The finale plays out more on the metaphysical realm, as Walter and Bell dose up and try to lure Mather into a trap near the Golden Gate Bridge. And Mather’s fate appears to be another reference to the show, being very similar to the one suffered by villain David Robert Jones (no, not that David Robert Jones) in Season 1.

Online reviews for The Zodiac Paradox are pretty consistent in that most fans didn’t enjoy the novel. The biggest stated criticism is over Walter, who herein acts like the Walter of the show: bumbling, given to grandiosity, but very likable despite his faults. Fans know however that the Walter of the show was a result of brain surgery; Walter, in the late 1980s or so, felt that he was becoming too grandiose, too “evil,” and thus asked Bell to remove portions of his brain(!). In the two ‘80s flashback episodes (from Seasons 2 and 3), Walter was a different man, arrogant and abrupt (John Noble’s acting was truly legendary on this show). Readers of The Zodiac Paradox wonder then why this 1970s Walter isn’t the same.

But to defend Faust, I don’t see where this is necessarily a mistake. We never learned when exactly Walter started his slide toward “evil genius,” and there’s nothing in the series (that I can remember, at least) which would indicate he was always like that, and only became “likable Walter” after the brain surgery. In fact from the backstories doled out throughout the five seasons, it would seem that Walter was always the same, but only became deranged once his son Peter was born and developed health issues, something which didn’t happen until the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and is thus outside of the era of this novel.

Perhaps the bigger problem with The Zodiac Paradox is that it doesn’t feel like Fringe. Sure, it’s got Walter, Bell, and Nina, it’s got drugs and mind expansion, and it’s got inexplicable phenomena. But despite all that, it’s sort of plodding and dull at times, and lacks the momentum of the actual show. At any rate, if this was an episode, it would be one of the skippale ones – and there were precious few skippable episodes in Fringe. (For my money, all of them were in the regrettable fourth season, which featured an “altered timeline” in which the first three seasons never happened.)

A few months after this novel, the second volume was released: The Burning Man, which details a backstory about series protagonist Olivia Dunham as a teenager. The online reviews for this one are even more merciless – and it appears that these reviews got through to Titan Books, who postponed the publication of the third volume (which will be about Walter’s son Peter); originally scheduled to come out soon after The Burning Man, this third novel, Sins Of The Father, is now scheduled to come out in August 2014! Speculation has it that production company Bad Robot actually checked out the manuscript this time and likely ordered rewrites.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Serial

The Serial, by Cyra McFadden
June, 1978  Signet Books

First published in weekly installments in an “alternative” Marin County newspaper in 1976 and then in hardcover the following year, Cyra McFadden’s The Serial lampoons one year in the New Age mid-1970s Marin County, California. The book was a bestseller, and even scored a film adaptation in 1980, but I’d never heard of it until coming across this great post on The Moderate Contrarian

I’ve long been interested in the ‘70s self-help/New Age craze, from biofeedback to Pyramid Power. I never realized there was a novel out there that was all about those things, and specifically about the flaky people who’d jump from one fad to the next, and so was very excited to discover it. However “flake” turns out to be the operative word here, as the characters in The Serial are such self-involved narcissists that they rob the tale of much impact.

The novel also lives up to its name in that it’s a serialized, soap operatic satire about a large cast of goofy characters, made up of 52 short chapters which each end on a punchline (which sometimes are a little too forced). The focus is on comedy rather than character or plot, and indeed the characters really stay the same throughout the book, despite jumping from one mid-‘70s “self-improvement” fad to the next.

But again this serialized nature just robs the novel of impact, as McFadden is more concerned with setting up the latest chapter’s mini-plot, doling out a few jokes, and then wrapping it up so she can move on. In other words, there’s no grand plot for the novel to build toward. But then, one could also argue that the book is moreso a collection of short stories rather than a novel per se.

Anyway our two main protagonists are Kate and Harvey Holroyd, a couple married for over a decade and who have gone through the vast societal changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Whereas ten years before they were the average middle class, meat and potatoes type of American family, they’re now (well, Kate is at least) into meditation, female empowerment courses, human potential development, and etc, etc. They talk to their teenaged daughter Joan like she’s a fellow adult (sorry, “fellow human being”) and don’t play “the parent game.”

However, given McFadden’s satiric theme, there’s absolutely no love in this little family. Kate and Joan treat Harvey like an enemy throughout the novel, and after the various trials and tribulations they all go through, very rarely sticking together, you have a hard time buying McFadden’s eleventh-hour “family back together again” resolution in the final chapter.

In fact, emotional content doesn’t exist in this novel. Which normally I’d be fine with, as I’m a pretty emotionless guy, but still. Kate and Harvey are the core of the novel, and a major part of the story is the changes they go through, with Harvey often going off and Kate pulling him back…and you start to wonder why he returns to her, given that McFadden never once gives us a single moment in which the two characters show even a modicum of warmth for one another.

The cover compares The Serial to Mark Twain and other American works of satire, and given that, I guess one should judge the novel moreso as a spoof or comedy. Documenting one harried year in Marin County, the novel has the Holroyds going through several new fads and beliefs, from Kate’s tentative attempt at lesbianism to Harvey’s brief tenure as Marin County’s #1 stud. As mentioned the stories were first published in a newspaper, so there’s nothing very outrageous about The Serial, ie no explicit sex or anything, however the odd curse word does show up – it was an “alternative” newspaper, after all.

The story opens at a wedding – the fifth marriage for Kate’s friend Martha, this time to a guy named Bill, who Brady Bunch style combines his kids from previous marriages with Martha’s; their liberal approach to “parenting” serves up several laughs in the novel. Martha and Bill factor occasionally into the story; McFadden juggles a fairly large cast, with Kate and Martha at the center of it all. However you do sort of confuse the many characters after a while.

From the opening marriage we move on into a scattershot story in which Kate and Harvey go through even more changes. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s padded, McFadden obviously trying to come up with enough material to fit the 52-chapter template. And for that matter, the print is friggin’ huge in this mass market paperback edition, which by the way retains the funky black and white illustrations which also accompanied the original newspaper and hardcover publications.

One thing I noticed is that McFadden doesn’t much elaborate on the various fads. For example we learn that one minor character has been through “Gurdjieff, Silva Mind Control, actualism, Human Life Styling, orgonomy,” and etc, but McFadden never tells us what those things are. That being said, McFadden does occasionally namedrop various persons/beliefs that I’d never heard of, which lead me straight onto Google (for example Leonard Orr, whose anti-dying teachings are mentioned by a character). But then, I’m lucky enough to have a search engine at my disposal; I’d imagine a lot of this material was lost on the average ‘70s reader, who had no avenue to find out more of what McFadden was writing about.

Harvey and Kate aren’t the best protagonists; Harvey at first comes off as cynical and sarcastic, and I figured through him McFadden would mock the whole Marin County New Age movement. But this comes and goes, and in the long run Harvey’s too spineless a character to do much of anything. Kate however is much worse. She’s such a self-involved shrew that you have little empathy for her. Certainly one of the jokes of The Serial is that these characters, despite their insistent wish to “be open” with one another, are so self-involved and narcissistic that ultimately they could care less what the other person has to say. But the joke grows thin over 300-some pages.

The serialized, soap opera storyline covers a lot of ground, from Harvey getting kicked out of the house and hooking up with a younger woman (who’s even more New Age-focused than Kate), to Kate trying to start a few affairs, with zero luck (the funniest being the dog groomer who turns out to be gay), to Joan joining a few communes, to Kate herself joining a commune (and of course, her fellow communers are a bunch of backstabbing bastards). Groupsex, that other ‘70s hot topic, even gets a mention when Harvey ends up with his secretary, Ms. Murphy, who soon enough has Harvey attending orgies with her – and Harvey’s moreso concerned that his back is going to go out on him.

One of the contemporary industry reviews stated that The Serial would best be read one chapter a week. I think that might be a good idea, as reading it like a “regular” novel no doubt dillutes the impact; some of the jokes are too similar, and you start to get sick of the lack of emotional content or characterization. Another problem is how forgettable the novel is; writing this review a little over a week after finishing the novel, I can barely remember any of it.

A film version of The Serial was produced in 1980, with Tuesday Weld as Kate and Martin Mull as Harvey, but I’d wager there’s no way it captured the full ‘70s flavor of the source material. However it was recently released on DVD, so maybe someday I’ll check it out.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Jason Striker #4: Ninja's Revenge

Jason Striker #4: Ninja's Revenge, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes
May, 1975  Berkley Medallion Books

The fourth installment of Jason Striker takes place “a few months” after the previous volume, but opens a few centuries in the past, with a detailed and entertaining battle between ninjas and samurai in 16th century Japan. The protagonist/villain here is Fu Antos, that immortal ninja master last seen in the final pages of #1: Kiai!; here we learn how Fu Antos eluded death, got vengeance on the shogun, and eventually achieved immortality.

In fact Ninja’s Revenge features more third-person sequences than any previous volume, so that Striker’s traditional first-person sections are greatly reduced. For example from the 16th century prologue we jump to the “modern day” (ie the mid-‘70s) as Hiroshi, kindly old akido sensei who himself was last seen back in that first volume, has journeyed to the US, where he seeks out Striker. Affronted by American rudeness, Hiroshi takes it upon himself to teach several Americans some manners, in what for the most part is a rather arbitrary sequence of Hiroshi politely beating the shit out of various jerks.

Eventually Hiroshi makes it to Striker’s judo dojo, where we see that Ilunga, black kung-fu mistress and former Kill-13 addict, is now co-running the place, an element introduced in the previous volume. But Hiroshi manages to piss off Ilunga as well, culminating in a brief fight in which Hiroshi uses his awesome mastery of ki, which entails Ilunga not only getting knocked on her ass, but also her long-broken nose being magically repaired.

Meanwhile Fu Antos, who now resides in the body of a prepubescent boy (as seen in the bizarre finale of Kiai!) comes upon a pollution-ravaged village somewhere in Japan. Putting on his ninja gi, Fu Antos storms the “dragon” which is polluting the water; in reality it’s an industrial factory with pipes that run into the local water supply, but apparently Fu Antos has been so segregated from the modern world that he’s unable to comprehend its real nature and thus thinks of it as a dragon. Here proceeds a strange scene in which a ninja boy with an immortal soul hacks apart armed thugs and puts a corporate executive under mind control, forcing the man to destroy the building.

From here we get another of those jumps – apparently all this Fu Antos stuff has occurred in the recent past – as we cut back to Hiroshi, who has connected at long last with Striker. Hiroshi works for Fu Antos (and indeed was the man who lead Striker to the immortal ninja back in Kiai!), and informs Striker that Fu Antos has now set up shop in “the wilds of the Amazon forest in South America,” where he plans to build his third Black Castle (the previous two having been in Japan, and destroyed over the centuries in various sieges). Hiroshi has been sent to draft Striker into helping out in the building of this castle, something Striker has no experience in whatsoever.

But before he can refuse, Striker is left with a bag of priceless diamonds, “payment” from Fu Antos, and Hiroshi disappears (that is, after he and Striker have laid to waste a Puerto Rican street gang called the Bastard Bones). Here the novel again goes on a bizarre and unexpected tack, with Striker now on a quest to convert the diamonds to cash. But Striker, our lovable idiot, is picked up by the trashy mother of one of his students, a brazen lady who shows up on his doorstep and asks him out – and Striker, after merely hiding the priceless diamonds beneath his clothes hamper, goes out with her.

With a chapter titled “Nympho” you know Ninja’s Revenge is a product of the ‘70s. And the lady lives up to the title, taking Striker home with her and screwing his brains out. Here the authors for once get slightly explicit in the ensuing sex scenes, rather than instantly fading to black. However none of it is erotic or even entertaining, and the woman is such an actual nympho that she wears Striker out and he escapes the next morning – only to run into the woman’s poor husband, who tells Striker he feels sorry for him, as the lady’s such a maneater.

Of course, Striker returns to find that his diamonds have been stolen. Here the novel descends into stupidity, and stays there for the duration. Hiroshi comes over, and using a friggin’ dowsing rod made out of a wire coathanger, playing it over a map of New York, he figures out where the diamonds have been taken! And he and Striker go there, to a secluded neighborhood of mansions, and infiltrate the place! And Striker gets in a fight with a bunch of thugs who happen to be in there, even though Striker’s not certain the diamonds are even there!

It turns out though that Hiroshi might’ve had the diamonds all along, and this whole encounter was engineered so he and Striker could play out Fu Antos’s enemies and show them who they’re messing with. Or something. Hiroshi disappears and now the novel sprawls fully into chaos. After another very, very long chapter about Fu Antos’s ninja past (a chapter which randomly drops in and out of Antos’s first-person perspective), Striker finds out that Luis, a Cuban gunrunning contact from the previous volume, has gone missing, possibly in Miami, and after receiving a garbled telegram about “monk’s treasure,” Striker deduces that he must go to Miami and look for a boat of that name!

This whole sequence is mind-boggingly arbitrary, beyond practically anything I’ve yet read in men’s adventure. My friends, Striker just takes off for Miami, walks around on the piers looking for a boat named Monk’s Treasure; an attractive young girl named Gloria hits on him, deduces he’s a “judoka,” and then asks him to go on a yacht cruise with her! And Striker complies! And on the yacht he starts teaching her and the skipper judo moves! And then friggin pirates attack the yacht and Striker fights them off, but the yacht is destroyed, and they all jump ship! And then sharks attack! And after the skipper dies Striker and Gloria make it to an island, where they build a makeshift hut! And then Gloria asks Striker to sleep with her, to help her get over the memory of her dead-of-a-disease fiance, who was a karate expert! And Striker takes her virginity in a somewhat explicit sequence! And then the girl tells him that “monk’s treasure” might refer to a famous temple in Miami! And then the coast guard or whatever happens by and saves them!

This entire stupid sequence goes on for a long, long time, and is so incredibly, jaw-droppingly unrelated to anything that it ranges from hilarious to rage-inducing and back to hilarious again. Seriously, Striker just goes to Miami on nothing more than a hunch, meets some random girl, goes on a yacht ride with her, gets capsized and stranded on an island, and takes her virginity! Then finally we return to the plot, with Striker now on the proper course for this mysterious “monk’s treasure.” To say the entire section is page-filler would be an understatement.

And it just gets dumber, and more coincidental. Striker happens upon some random dojo in Miami, and there he is challenged by practically the entire class, all of whom disrespect him for no reason. After trouncing them, including their muscle-bound leader, Loco, Striker is informed that these guys are all compatriots of Luis, Striker’s missing friend, and they suspected Striker of being his kidnapper! Yes, Striker just happened to walk right into a martial arts school run by companions of the man he’s seeking! Anyway he teams up now with a few of them and heads for the much-belated Monk’s Treasure, a stone castle erected at the turn of the century and now filled with various monks and kung-fu fighters.

After freeing Luis from his chains in a cellar, the group is making an easy escape…when coincidence rears its head again, and Striker spots Kan-Sen, the Demon Cult leader Striker thought he killed back in #2: Mistress Of Death! Kan-Sen as we’ll recall was the murderer of Striker’s fiance, and Striker’s still boiling at the memory. The authors skirt over Kan-Sen’s death by having Striker realize that he never confirmed his kill, that he merely assumed Kan-Sen was dead. This is easily bought due to Striker’s general stupidity, so no big deal.

Striker launches an attack, despite the fact that Kan-Sen’s surrounded by like a hundred kung-fu followers, as they’re all standing about the open grounds of the Monk’s Treasure castle. This fight goes on and on and isn’t very entertaining. It ends with Striker’s two companions perhaps dead, and Striker himself face-to-face with Kan-Sen, who reveals that they are now on the same side – Kan-Sen was freed of his Kill-13 addiction by Fu Antos, and it was Fu Antos who sent Kan-Sen here, to oversee the development of Fu Antos’s new Black Castle down in the Amazon. Also, Fu Antos apparently wanted Striker and Kan-Sen to meet, and engineered it thusly, for some unstated but no doubt nefarious purpose.

So Ninja’s Revenge ends on a cliffhanger, with Striker aghast at the thought of working with the man who killed his fiance. Unfortunately the reader doesn’t feel very compelled to instantly read the next volume, as this book was practically a joke, randomly jumping from one goofy plot to the next. All of the soap opera aspects of the previous books (Ilunga’s growing love for Striker, the various squabbles among Thera Drummond, Ilunga, Amalita, etc) have been removed, and Striker himself has been brushed to the side, so the authors can focus on arbitrary backstory about Fu Antos’s days in fuedal Japan.

But here’s hoping the next installment (which was the last to be published by Berkley) is an improvement.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Soldier For Hire #6: Commando Squad

Soldier For Hire #6: Commando Squad, by Mark K. Roberts
No month stated, 1982  Zebra Books

Mark Roberts's second go on the Soldier For Hire series is nearly as outrageous as the others I’ve read, once again featuring our “hero” JC Stonewall acting like a regular horse’s ass, but this particular installment goes to some dark extremes that put the novel on a scuzzy level. More damningly, Commando Squad is kind of boring. And it’s certainly padded, Roberts trying to accommodate Zebra’s overlong word count requirements.

But make no mistake, Stonewall’s still a bastard this time around, denouncing any and all who would even dare to question him and salivating over the prospect of killing more “commies.” His victims this time around are the members of a rebel faction in El Salvador, lead by Juan Escobar, El Proletario; these people have made an unwitting but huge mistake by abducting pretty young American tourist Janice Kurin, who happens to be the neice of Trojan, Stonewall’s handler.

El Proletario is the expected walking cliché, who has carved out his little kingdom in the El Salvador jungles with little resistance from the government. Spouting socialist invective while brutalizing and ruling the natives without mercy, Escobar displays zero leadership qualities, but regardless is a darling of the liberal US media (more of whom below). Even worse though is Hector Garcia, Escobar’s second in command. Garcia is the character who takes this novel into a darker realm, as he is a rapist and murderer of little girls. And Roberts doesn’t just tell us this – he shows it as well.

The titular “commando squad” is a group of soldiers Stonewall puts together after Trojan offers him the job – and Roberts gifts us with one of his awesomely purple-prosed sex scenes right before this, as Stonewall is seduced while he’s in a hot tub by his girlfriend’s “kid sister,” Karen. However this is just the first of Stonewall’s conquests in the novel; as the narrative progresses he’ll score with a few more ladies, and while it’s all appropriately goofy none of it is as preposterous as the stewardess screwing of the previous volume.

But anyway Stonewall’s 7-man team is made up of Theo Levi, the black commando of previous volumes, as well as Ed Cotter, who showed up in the unforgettle #8: Jakarta Coup. The other five men are a variety of redshirts, from an American Indian named Julio Whitebear to a Japanese dude who likes to go into combat with a samurai sword, sort of like something out of a William Fieldhouse novel – and Roberts by the way indulges in his penchant for in-jokes, namedropping Fieldhouse himself in the narrative as a guy Stonewall met in Fort Bragg who had a theory that America’s socialists should be rounded up and dropped off in Siberia!

After some training in Mexico the squad splits up and travels down to El Salvador in twos; we’re informed that due to the friggin’ liberal media, the locals are very aware of soldier-type Americans coming into their country for mercenary purposes. Stonewall’s mission is to keep the extraction of Janice Kurin nice and quiet, and then to kill El Proletario and his people, so he’s not to draw any attention to himself, even though he will have the secretive help of the El Salvador government. It’s here in El Salvador that Stonewall “reconnects” with Margaret Collenbrander, a gorgeous reporter who apparently first met Stonewall in one of the earlier, pre-Roberts books in the series.

Roberts graces us with yet another hot and heavy sex scene that leaves little to the imagination, but never reaches the stupefying “fill me with that enormous phallus before I lose my cookies” heights of Jakarta Coup. In fact the same could be said of the entirety of Commando Squad, which comes off as rushed and padded throughout, Roberts trying to hit all of his marks and get in his page count so he can move on to the next project. There’s sort of a listless feeling to this volume, and though it has all the stuff of the other Roberts Soldier For Hire offerings, it just comes off as forced.

Roberts does excel at a sort of Jack London feel when Stonewall and Theo reside for a few weeks in a village near El Proletario’s base. Here Stonewall fishes and hunts with the natives, and also of course scores with Soledad, a pretty young girl who per series tradition throws herself at him and practically demands they have sex. But Stonewall’s called away when Senator Ned Flannery (aka the Ted Kennedy analog who plagues Stonewall throught the series) shows up in El Salvador due to reports of the presence of “white American mercenaries” in the country. Stonewall leaves the village for a confrontation with the man.

This is actually Stonewall’s second battle with the liberals in Commando Squad; in an earlier, humorous scene he runs afoul of two “socialist” American actors who have come down here to spread news to the world how heroic the “freedom fighters” of El Salvador are. These two men are Bob Templeton and Brick Brewster, the latter a muscle-bound gay who friggin’ lisps when he gets upset, providing Roberts all sorts of room to lampoon gays in general. These two guys get in a bar fight with Stonewall, who beats the shit out of them…but what’s funny is, they’re so easily outclassed. I mean, Stonewall’s this battle-hardened warrior. These guys are just actors. And Brick Brewster keeps getting back up to fight him. And yet Stonewall (nor Roberts) never once acknowledges how courageous this is.

Anyway the Stonewall-Flannery match is pretty fun, mostly because it’s the first (only?) time the two meet. Posing as a UN rep(!), Stonewall attempts to convince Flannery that there are no American mercenaries in El Salvador. But soon enough Stonewall starts putting down Flannery and his idiotic liberal ideas. Here Roberts exposits on a grand scale, with Stonewall belittling Flannery as he rants and raves about current US politics. And like the two actors, Flannery actually holds his own, and indeed Stonewall comes off like the bigger ass (believe it or not). It’s funny, because throughout the series Flannery is presented as the villain. 

Flannery properly put in place (and one could argue stupidly put in place, as Stonewall’s blatherings do nothing more than make Flannery aware of who Stonewall is and vow to get vengeance upon him someday), Stonewall heads on back into the jungle, only to find that El Proletario’s men have attacked the village while he was gone. While Soledad was able to escape, blowing away people with a borrowed gun alongside Theo Levi, the villagers themselves suffered mightly, in particular a little girl who was taken by El Proletario’s depraved second in command, Hector Garcia.

As mentioned, Roberts pushes some buttons in Commando Squad. Hector Garcia is a murderous pedophile, and with each raid he always takes the opportunity to rape a little girl. Roberts actually shows this happen midway through the novel, as Garcia rapes a ten year-old girl in a shockingly explicit sequence that goes on for like two pages. Strangely enough, Roberts employs pretty much the same words, phrases, and style that he’d use for a regular sex scene. Needless to say, something like this could not be published in today’s market. But also, I felt it didn’t need to be here anyway, and came off as too much.

Anyway, Stonewall’s plan is to infiltrate El Proletario’s terrorist camp, he and his squad posing as commie American soldiers who want to help out the cause. And Stonewall suceeds! Able to meet with El Proletario through rebel contacts, Stonewall successfully presents himself as a disaffected American commando who has a squad of similarly-inclined Americans at his disposal. Here Roberts again gets to indulge in some commie-baiting, having Stonewall prove himself to a mock tribunal, spouting out how much he hates America and how great Communism is. Roberts even takes digs at various veteran-run organizations, claiming that they are commies themselves.

Oh, and kidnapped Janice Kurin is still here, though she’s gang-raped practically every day. In another button-pushing sequence early on Roberts has Janice raped after she runs her mouth at Proletario, and apparently this has become a daily treat for the rebels. Stonewall is even asked to join, but he merely lays overtop the girl and tells her he’s here to free her. Not that he hurries about it; his demands not being met, Proletario starts cutting off little pieces of Janice and mailing them home. Yet Stonewall keeps biding his time.
And indeed when the battle finally begins, it’s because Hector Garcia runs into Stonewall while he’s rigging explosives around the camp. This leads to a practically endless denoument (with even “commie” actors Rob Templeton and Brick Brewster showing up) in which Stonewall and squad blast the shit out of the rebels, run into the jungle, evade their pursuers, and try to make their way for safety. Along the way a few redshirts on Stonewall’s team buy it, of course, though Stonewall himself is unscathed, blowing people away with his Sidewinder submachine gun or hacking them up with his assegai blade. Strangely, El Proletario’s death is anticlimatic, and not even depicted; Stonewall calls in a friggin’ napalm strike, and that’s that!

The novel actually ends on one of Roberts’s sex scenes, with Stonewall, who we’re informed is sore from an all-night love session with Margaret, surprised next morning when Janice Kurin comes knocking on his hotel door. Now mind you, Janice has been gang-raped throughout the novel. However, despite flying all the way back to the US for an emotional reunion with her family, she’s snuck on another plane to come back down to El Salvador, so she can “pay” Stonewall for saving her!

But just as they’re about to have sex, Soledad storms in! Janice and Stonewall try to calm her down, and Stonewall proposes that they all sleep together – and the gals are all for it. Ironically, the exact same thing once happened to me! Okay, maybe not.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Shannon #3: The Mindbenders

Shannon #3: The Mindbenders, by Jake Quinn
January, 1975  Leisure Books

As half-assed and leisurely-paced as its predecessors, the third and final installment of the Shannon series once again sees our titular hero more concerned with downing whiskey and scoring with his hooker girlfriend. Meanwhile an Anton LaVey-styled “medium” is implanting mind-control devices in the heads of UN employees in some unspecified plot to do something. And Shannon’s gonna stop him, even if it takes him the entire novel to get around to it.

Once again Jake Quinn (more on whom below) is more content to wheel-spin, casually doling out his lackluster tale with absolutely no sense of urgency. Well, anyway, here’s the story: Alexander Garth, the LaVey-type, is a famous medium with jet-set clients all over the world, and is now famous on his own. However, he uses his hypnotic powers to lull his unsuspecting clients into a trance, during which Garth implants them with a mind-controlling device. We learn this only gradually, the novel opening with the sudden “suicides” of two of Garth’s clients, both of them UN notables: Akasaka of Japan and Haslev of Denmark.

Shannon’s brought into it when he catches his latest girlfriend, a UN translator from Norway named Aurora, snooping around in Shannon’s penthouse study one night. When Shannon sees that the girl’s taking photos of Shannon’s top-secret MORITURI files (the top secret organization Shannon “works” for), he chases after her…and the girl willingly jumps off of the high rise, killing herself. (All this just a few pages after some explicit sexual shenanigans between the two.)

Well, you know it’s Shannon when his reaction is to… break open another bottle of Jameson’s whiskey. Yes, friends, Shannon the drunk is up to his usual page-filling tricks, biding his time throughout the narrative and not really doing much of anything. Hell, he doesn’t get in a single action scene in the entirey of The Mindbenders, at least of the fist-and-guns variety. Now as for sex action, Shannon’s got that covered, with this volume getting pretty down and dirty at times; it’s much more explicit than the previous two volumes.

But anyway, just a few minutes after some hot n’ heavy screwin’ in Shannon’s bedroom (a scene in which we’re graced with the unforgettable tidbit that Shannon “watched himself in the ceiling mirror as he entered Aurora” ), the poor girl’s become a human pancake on the sidewalk far below. And after his drink, Shannon eventually gets around to doing something about it…namely, pestering his boss, the unimaginatively-named Number One, who poses as a priest in a NYC Catholic church.

Here’s the funny thing, though, despite the fact that the two dead men and Aurora all worked at the UN, and the Number One-revealed info that there’s apparently a mole leaking important secrets at the UN, no one believes Shannon that all of it might be tied together! In one of the more preposterous page-filling gambits I’ve encountered, our author instead has Shannon constantly butting heads with Number One and everyone else, who tell Shannon he’s crazy to even suspect that these “random suicides” might be the work of some nefarious foe.

Not that Shannon does much about it. No, he’s more content to call up his hooker friend Lillian, the female lead of the previous two installments whose name I could never recall. Lillian, a stacked redhead who is in love with Shannon, once again serves as more of a star in Shannon’s own novel. However Joe-Dad, Shannon’s black/Chinese cook and best pal, plays a much smaller role, and his un-PC jive talk is also greatly reduced. But then in this particular installment all of the characters talk like automatons, doling out expository info or filling pages with blather about irrelevant stuff, like even Joe-Dad bitching about how literary critics “complain about everything these days”!

Alexander Garth receives an arbitrary background section in which Quinn provides lots of useless backstory – but at least it’s all nice and lurid, especially when Garth hooks up with another Anton LaVey type who introduces Garth to the wonders of Satanism, complete with a Black Mass that features a willing “virgin” and lots of explicit sex. However Garth’s mind control ability isn’t really elaborated on; we learn that some other dude came up with the technology, and after learning how to master it Garth killed him and began using it, so as to spread his own power base. But again, why exactly he’s focused on the UN is never explored. 

Shannon works (well, sort of) in private eye mode throughout, talking to those who knew the two murdered UN employees. One of them is Andrew Lee, a young actor who served as a “friend” for Akasaka, whom we learn was gay. Quinn does actually pepper the novel with goofy stuff, and the Andrew Lee subplot is the goofiest of all, for we learn that he acts in an all-nude, off-Broadway play based 100% on Hair. Quinn, clearly having fun with it, takes us through the show as Shannon watches, and the opening song is “Did You Ever See Anything Like It In Your Hole?” The humor also extends into a darker realm, when a Garth-brainwashed Andrew Lee actually guts himself live on stage. (And then later some dude in the audience complains about having paid for his ticket!)

But man it just kinda keeps on going. Shannon talks with his friends, goes to bars, screws Lillian, and then wonders when the case will wrap up. Even though it’s clear Alexander Garth is somehow connected to all this, Number One refuses to give Shannon permission to do anything. He does however approve Shannon and Lillian going to a party at Liz Manderson’s, a Southern belle who is responsible for spreading Garth’s fame. This middling sequence, which makes a big deal of Shannon dying his red hair brown, at least serves to up the ante, as Garth takes a sudden interest in Lillian, offering to give her a reading the next day.

After Lillian herself is “mindbent,” Shannon ensures the implant is successfully removed in the hospital and then finally gets Number One’s approval to friggin’ do something. This leads to a lackluster climax that plays out during the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day. Even here Shannon doesn’t punch or shoot anyone, merely just running after Garth, who ends up doing in himself accidentally (and gorily). Quinn, not realizing he had an entire damn novel to do so, instead plays out a veritable last-second reveal that Garth was really getting his orders from elsewhere, bringing this up and closing it over the course of a single page.

So, a middling end for a middling series. I think Leisure was even sick of it; notice how the cover design is vastly different from the previous two installments. In fact I’m betting this art was commissioned for a different book, as it has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of The Mindbenders. And for that matter, the back cover copy (which I’m betting was written by Leisure editor Peter McCurtin, as it’s very much in his style) also has nothing to do with the actual novel, spewing out vague hyperbole about how tough Shannon is – actually it occurs to me that it’s mostly just a summarization of the events shown in the cover painting!

A couple months ago I came across some eBay listings where a seller was auctioning off author copies of the Shannon books. (I can’t remember how much they were listed for, but I think they ended without any bids!) According to the listing, “Jake Quinn” was in reality J.C. Conaway, aka James Curry Conaway (1936-2012), a prolific pulpster who turned out a wealth of paperbacks in his day. The listing further stated that Conaway never learned to type, and thus dictated every word; further, he apparently wrote all three Shannon novels in a single month!

At any rate The Mindbenders was it for the adventures of Patrick Shannon, but much like the similarly-boring Joe Rigg series, one could argue that Shannon’s adventures never even really started.