Monday, April 28, 2014

Corporate Hooker, Inc.

Corporate Hooker, Inc., by Manning Lee Stokes
February, 1975  Pocket Books

One of the last novels Manning Lee Stokes published before his death in January 1976, Corporate Hooker, Inc. is copyright Lyle Kenyon Engel, the book packager who gave us The Baroness, John Eagle Expeditor, Richard Blade, and many other series, employing Stokes on most of them, the latter two in particular.

Given the title and the fact that it was published by Pocket, I figured this book might’ve been Stokes’s attempt at a Harold Robbins-style trashy novel. And while Corporate Hooker, Inc. certainly is trashy at times, and definitely lurid, it’s more of a crime-suspense tale (a very dark one at that). It appears that at this time Engel was branching out into non-series crime novels, and Corporate Hooker, Inc. was one of them. However the title turns out to be very misleading – I’m assuming as with most other Engel publications, Stokes was given a title and a concept and just did his own thing.

But if it didn’t bear his name, I never would’ve guessed this was the work of Manning Lee Stokes. Other than the occasional stentorian narrative tone or the tendency to pad out the pages, Stokes’s style here is nothing like anything else I’ve read by him. It moreso comes off like Herbert Kastle, particularly Kastle’s mid-‘70s work, like Cross-Country. More particularly, though, I’m betting the novel’s tone and style was inspired moreso by the rough and crude 1970s work of Mickey Spillane.

Anyway, as mentioned, the title is misleading. The novel is actually about the horrific murder of a street-level hooker, and how her death threatens to compromise a well-laid plot to blackmail various bigwigs. It takes a while for the reader to learn this; Stokes instead starts off with the sleaze, as we meet an unfortunate young New York City streetwalker named Rita moments before she is horrifically murdered in graphic and unsettling detail. This murder, which occurs in the first few pages of the book, is in fact so unsettling that not only does it outdo anything in Bronson, it actually made me consider not continuing with the book! 

Apparently Rita has attempted to blackmail someone, and word has come down through various channels that she needs to suffer a little. Not die, but suffer. However the two hoodlums who end up with the job are such a pair of sick fuck-ups that they end up accidentally killing her. My friends, this sequence pushes the buttons and then some, as one of the hoods, a sadistic bastard who first makes Rita blow him, proceeds to find a broken broomstick and uses it in the most nightmarishly unpleasant manner possible. The sequence actually raises hackles.

Our nominal protagonist is Detective Tom Banning, a mountain-sized mass of muscle who was once a hero cop but has now been disgraced to serving in “Siberia” (aka Brooklyn) due to problems with alcoholism. Banning is a pure ‘70s pulp cop, taking bribes and graft with ease and working on the side for “The Outfit” (as Stokes, Richard Stark style, refers to the Mob throughout). On the crime scene the next morning, where the cops have discovered Rita’s partially-burned corpse (the hoods having jammed her into a warehouse furnace), Banning is shocked to discover that he actually knows this girl, or at least has seen her before.

Not that Banning tells his superiors; instead, he realizes this dead hooker once had business with Banning’s ex-wife, Ruth Watterston, the 31 year-old Director of PR for Magna Media, Inc, but a high-class madame in all but name. Ruth, “as sharp and amoral as they came,” per Banning’s opinion, oversees the good ship Saracen, a pleasure yacht which plies New York harbor and plays host to publishing world bigwigs, catering to their kinks with a new stable of high-class whores each cruise. (I’ve already checked for it on Expedia, but no luck.)

Ruth is an interesting character – beautiful but merciless, she cares only for material wealth. This is the reason she left Banning so long ago, and due to her business acumen she has risen far in Magna Media, Inc. Plus she’s been screwing the CEO, which always helps. This is Vincent Moretti, one of the mob’s “new generation,” a young Ivy Leaguer who deals solely in the legal elements of the Outfit’s various interests. Magna is Moretti’s jewel, a publishing house that deals mostly in sleaze and porn (their biggest seller a slick mag called Mister which outsells Playboy and the like), but he’s looking to branch out into respectability with the acquisition of Horton House, a literary giant that is on the verge of bankruptcy.

These three characters – Banning, Ruth, and Moretti – have an interesting dynamic, and Stokes constantly plays it up. Despite his impressive bulk and his tendency to bust heads, Banning is a mouse when it comes to Ruth, who can twirl him around her finger. Or as Stokes so memorably puts it, “There were about five billion pussys in the world and he had to get hooked on one.” Banning leaves the crime scene to visit Ruth, earning his keep as one of Moretti’s informants as he delivers early word that the dead girl will no doubt soon be uncovered as once having worked for Ruth and Magna Media.

The opening horrors dispensed with, Stokes proceeds to pad out the tale (the novel runs to 253 pages of smallish print) in his customary style, with the various characters plotting and planning. Stokes sleazes it up once in a while, like when Banning and Ruth get cozy and she marvels once again over the massive “length and diameter” of him (Banning’s size – in all aspects – is constantly hammered home). Gradually the shape of the tale comes together, and it all hinges on an elaborate blackmail scheme Moretti and Ruth cooked up the year before. (The novel takes place in early November, 1973, by the way.)

We learn that Moretti has secretly wired Saracen with the latest in audio-visual bugging equipment, so that all the kinky activities in the opulent staterooms are recorded for later blackmailing. Moretti has used this to commit various swindles, like using the incriminating photos of a pair of incestuous siblings to steal away their paper mills. His method is to anonymously mail his victims slides taken from the hidden cameras, and later demand payment. Of course, why none of these people would suspect that the ship, what with its revolving stable of hookers, is some sort of blackmailing scheme is something Stokes leaves unexplored. 

The murdered girl, Rita, was a hooker Ruth employed just once, on a cruise the previous spring. It turns out that she was trying to blackmail one of the Saracen’s more esteemed guests, John Vance. The Saracen is scheduled to disembark on its last voyage of the year on November 3rd, the day Rita’s body has shown up, and Moretti and Ruth are concerned that this will blow the lid off everything – they’ve spent the past year taping and filming their guests in a variety of intimate acts, all of it working up to this final voyage, when they have the most important “guests” on board.

The biggest problem with Corporate Hooker, Inc. is that it’s just damn boring. After the opening sadism, the novel just sort of becomes this character study kind of thing, and nothing much happens. For example, the two hoods who killed the hooker – Stokes doesn’t even bother detailing their fates. We’re just informed that the lower-level boss who hired them hunts them down so as to kill them, permanently shutting their mouths. And the actual Saracen cruise is rendered to one single chapter, a tepid one at that, in which Stokes provides a view into each stateroom, usually delivering the lurid details, like a fat chick masturbating(!) and Ruth engaging in a little lesbiana with one of the hookers.

Instead the novel just comes off as listless as Stokes pads out the pages. Rather than more exploitative stuff we get long sequences of Banning going around and trying to figure out what Rita was up to that got her killed. Eventually he discovers that it was because she was attempting to blackmail a wealthy pedophile named Jon Vance, and further Banning learns that it was a psychiatrist named Roger Draik who was behind the scheme – Draik, acting as Moretti’s go-to doctor for the medical and psychological check-ups of the hookers used onboard Saracen, was thus privy to both the girls and the millionaires onboard.

Even the finale is anticlimatic, with Vance just jumping off the ship before Saracen returns to port, thus conveniently disposing of himself – not to mention rendering most of the plot moot. Instead Stokes focuses on Banning and Moretti, with the latter suddenly deciding that he’s going to kill off Banning. So Banning goes about leaving evidence which will expose Moretti and the Saracen wiretapping scheme, and talks Ruth into leaving town with him immediately, to go live in Mexico. But Banning, the old lush, can’t deny himself one last drink, which leads him into a bender where he eventually decides to go confront Moretti face to face for a violent climax.

Stokes’s writing is good, delivering the usual character introspection and world building. But his tendency to page-fill really hampers the novel. He page-filled in the other novels of his I’ve read, but at least those were shorter. With Corporate Hooker, Inc. you just wish he would’ve come up with something a little more compelling to fill these 253 pages – not to mention that he would’ve delivered a plot more in-line with the title of the book. I mean, I wanted to read a novel about a corporate hooker, dammit!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Justin Perry: The Assassin #1

Justin Perry: The Assassin #1, by John D. Revere
February, 1983  Pinnacle Books

With a first volume nearly as weird as the final one was, the Justin Perry series gets off to an expectedly-unsettling start, detailing the origin story of our unibrowed, curly-haired, sexually demented hero, who as we’ll recall is a top assassin for the CIA who gets off on killing people. This is surely one of the more unusual men’s adventure series to ever be published, which means of course that I like it.

As with the final installment, this one is heavy on the literary stuff, the word painting and the descriptive flourishes, and short on the action, thus belying Hal Bennett's (aka “John D. Revere”) literary background. In fact, Bennett isn’t at all concerned with the action aspects of men’s adventure fiction, still finding a way to focus on the psycho-sexual elements even when Justin gets into fights. Plus he could care less about realistic weapons description and the like. For example, Justin’s favored gun is a .38 revolver, which somehow not only has a safety, but can also be equipped with a silencer!

But as mentioned this first novel details Justin’s origin story. The book in fact opens with many pages of background detail, as Justin talks to an old man in Germany and flashes back to three years earlier, before he became “Justin Perry,” CIA assassin. We learn that his name was originally Roger Johnson, and he was a 31 year-old colonel in the Air Force, married for 11 years to a ravishing lady named Bambi; together they had a ten year-old son, also named Roger. This background gets a lot of fleshing out through the novel, with Bennett building up several long-simmer mysteries about what happened to Roger in Vietnam, how exactly his best friend died there, and who exactly Justin’s friend Bob Dante is.

All that’s the flashback; the central plot of Justin Perry #1 has our freakish “hero” in Germany, where he’s been summoned by the elderly Dr. Aaron Henkel, a Holocaust survivor who has a strange story to tell.  Henkel relays a horrible story of how his family and friends were killed by the Nazis during the war. Henkel describes how his longtime best friend, Heydrich Kroll, was also a prisoner at Belsen, and was publically strangled by the Nazis as an example to the other prisoners. But now, over 40 years later, Henkel has discovered that Kroll is still alive, going about under an assumed name and living in another part of Germany, and that Kroll was a Nazi collaborator.

Now Henkel, through Justin’s handler “The Old Man,” has contacted Justin Perry so as to offer him the job of assassinating Wilhelm Kappelheimer, aka Heydrich Kroll. I should mention that throughout Henkel’s long story, Justin has either been flashing back to his own past or checking out the hot blonde at the table behind him. We all remember how sex-obessed Justin Perry is, don’t we? And the woman only serves to encourage him, casting salacious looks at him with her “slut-green eyes.” (I admit, I never knew that green eyes denoted sluttishness, but I’ll be sure to keep it in mind!)

The lady asks Justin back to her hotel, where they go right at it. But she has a sadomasochistic streak, begging Justin to slap her and etc. It’s obviously a trap – and to his credit Justin himself knows this – but it gets even weirder when, right as he’s climaxing, Justin sees a knife-wielding attacker leap from the shadows. As Justin pulls away from the girl the assassin accidentally stabs the woman in the chest, and she gets off on it, jamming the knife deeper into herself as she orgasms and dies! Meanwhile Justin, upset over the fact that he’s spilled most of his seed on the carpet(!), merely clubs the now-frantic assassin in the head and ties him up, leaving the hotel room.

I still say this series was begun with the ending already in Bennett’s mind; as we’ll recall, #5: Stud Service featured the revelation that Justin Perry had been chosen by the Halley Society as a stud whose sperm would be cryogenically preserved to sow several generations of descendants. That book was filled with the importance of sperm in general and Justin’s in particular; this first installment too features that theme, with Justin thinking it’s “such a fucking waste” that his seed dribbles onto the floor as he pulls out of the woman immediately after orgasming, so as to fend off the attacker. Of course, this could all be moreso indication of Bennett’s own foibles, but given the revelations of the final volume it just seems like well-planned foreshadowing.

The twisted stuff dispensed with (for now), Bennett delivers yet more literary-heavy backstory, with a long sequence set three years before in which “Colonel Roger Johnson” lost both his wife, his parents, and his son on one crazy day. Actually all of them died except for the kid, who was reduced to a catatonic wreck, now ensconced in an upscale sanitarium in New York. Justin’s wife, a government systems analyst, was gunned down on the streets of Washington, D.C., immediately after discovering that the many recent “computer glitches” which almost started a nuclear war were in fact intentionally set to go off. This discovery lead to not only her murder, but the eradication of Justin’s entire family, and was the incentive which caused him to become a CIA assassin.

But again, all this stuff is playing out in Justin’s mind as he continues on with the Henkel job – the blonde and the would-be assassin were sent by Heydrich Kroll, something Justin is now certain of, given that the blonde turns out to be the much-younger wife of “Wilhelm Kappelheimer.” Flying on the dead woman’s ticket to Madrid, Justin finds himself on a plane filled with priests and nuns. And guess what, moments after arriving in Madrid he is knocked out and taken captive by those same priests and nuns, who turn out to be members of a SPECTRE-like organization of evil.

Here follows more sickly weird stuff where Justin is chained up while a bunch of nude and ugly women cavort around him, half-heartedly licking and sucking him in one of the strangest forms of “torture” you’ll ever read about. And meanwhile a nude Heydrich Kroll watches all while his simperingly gay chaffeur sits beneath him, licking his feet! Oh, and Justin’s pal Bob Dante is here, also tied up and being “pleasured” by these unattractive women; Dante informs Justin that these freaks are minions of SADIF (the Sons And Daughters In Freedom), a worldwide conspiracy with its roots in Nazi Germany.

The problem with Justin Perry #1 is that it’s just overwritten and ultimately dull. The belabored flashbacks hamper things, and Justin comes off like a fool – I mean, he gets picked up by some random chick while his wife is being murdered on the streets of DC, and Justin never once suspects her of anything. In fact we’re informed that this woman, Julie Greer, has in the past few years become the only person Justin trusts! However the “surprise” reveal of her membership in SADIF is so anticlimatically handled that you wish Bennett hadn’t even brought it up. For that matter, Bennett treads a very campish line here; throughout the novel, anytime a character is exposed as an agent of SADIF, he or she immediately becomes the cliched Bond-esque villain, spouting insane rhetoric and acting cartoonishly evil.

The novel limps to a close with Justin flying back and forth from the Bahamas to Madrid, desperately trying to deliver a document to SADIF in the allotted time, or else his son dies. Here we see that practically everyone Justin has ever met or known is secretly in SADIF, including Henkel, and oh, the dead sadomasochistic chick has a twin sister who’s just as beautiful and is also into getting beaten up during sex, something Justin discovers during an “interrogation” on an airplane. Clad in a skin-tight black commando outfit just like the one he wears on the series covers, Justin and a comrade storm the SADIF headquarters in Madrid in one of the more anticlimatic finales ever, Justin armed with something called a “Magnum .57 automatic pistol.” Bennett doesn’t do very well with the action scene, as ever focused more on the psycho-sexual aspects.

As expected, the book’s tone is just damn weird, both homoerotic and homophobic at the same time; Justin we’ll recall becomes sexually excited when killing, and throughout the novel he’s afraid men are about to hit on him (and they do, several times, including his pal back in ‘Nam, who hilariously enough hits on Justin seconds before he’s blown up by the VC). The few sex scenes are explicit, but moreso in a literary style, but still very weird. As Zwolf points out in his great review, one also can’t help but wonder over how all the women Justin meets want to get beaten up while having sex.

Justin Perry #1 builds to a happy ending, with Justin reunited with his son, his wife being avenged, and the current SADIF plot prevented. However judging from future volumes Justin will tangle with them again, SADIF becoming the recurring villains of the series. Strange, then, that they weren’t even featured in #5: Stud Service, in which the Halley Society was outed as Justin’s main enemy. Also, I don’t recall Justin’s son being mentioned in that final volume.

Anyway, while it wasn’t as twistedly enjoyable as Stud Service, Justin Perry #1 still had enough weird stuff going for it, even if most of it was obscured by the heavy-handed prose and psychological probing.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Sex Surrogates

The Sex Surrogates, by Michael Davidson
February, 1973  Signet Books

The “sex surrogate” story was a trash fiction subgenere of the early ‘70s, cashing in on the recently-published Masters & Johnson sex studies. Publishers released a glut of paperbacks, most of them posing as nonfictional accounts of women hired by various sex research clinics to screw sexually-troubled men in need of help. Of course, the majority of these books were straight-up fiction. Even Herbert Kastle wrote one, the pseudonymous Surrogate Wife, which I’ll be reading soon. 

What’s unusual about The Sex Surrogates is that Signet Books made no pretense of the book being “true;” they clearly labeled it as fiction. Strangely though, the book is written identically to those pseudo-nonfiction books, coming off as an academic tome published by the Colorado-based Foundation for Sex Research, compiled by chairpersons Dr. James Walters and Mrs. Rita Cummings(!). Michael Davidson is credited as a “well-known sex article writer” who acted as the editor. (For that matter, Davidson might be a real person, as the book is copyright him and not Signet.)

At first I was afraid this meant the book would come off as dry and “scholarly,” and while that’s for the most part true, Davidson still trashes it up with lots of fun stuff, from men and women screwing robots to a few explicity-rendered scenes about people trying to overcome their sexual hangups with a little help. The book is presented as the “raw tapes” of four of the Foundation’s “most unusal surrogates:” three women and one man. In this way the novel comes off like a series of first-person short stories, with each surrogate detailing his or her first case.

First up is Tracy, unusually enough not only a wife but also the mother of three children! Our editors have made it clear that Tracy is a special case indeed, and that they were initially against the idea of using a surrogate who was not only still married, but had children to boot. But Tracy is a full-on ‘70s swinger; she and her husband have a very open relationship (her husband’s even overjoyed with the fact that Tracy occasionally screws his best friend!!), and thus they were excited over the prospects of Tracy becoming a surrogate.

One thing that sets the Foundation for Sex Research apart is that it focuses on single people with sexual hangups; apparently all those other clinics solely dealt with married couples. And also the novel is set up as if it’s the Foundation’s response to those critics who have claimed that it’s just a house of prostitution. Like a regular Robert H. Rimmer, Davidson peppers the novel with quotations from various academic tomes (and even includes a “selected reading list” of similarly-themed publications), so we get lots of opening detail on how the Foundation has come under fire in various circles.

But Tracy is a unique case even by the Foundation’s standards. After contacting the Foundation about becoming a surrogate, she goes through a battery of phsyiscal and mental exams. Once passed she moves on to the good stuff – the sexual examination. This entails the robot-screwing mentioned above, as Tracy is hooked up to various “alpha wave” monitors while she pleasures herself with a robotic cock! Apparently this is Dr. Walters’s “orgasm machine,” which measures the power of a woman’s climax. Tracy is such a nympho that, despite not abiding by the Foundation’s request that she abstain from sex for 24 hours before the test, she still short-circuits the machinery with the power of her orgasms, like a regular Barbarella

Having proven herself as a more-than-worthy sexual surrogate, Tracy is assigned her first case: Bob, a meek but handsome 27 year-old who suffers from “secondary impotency” thanks to a domineering mother and a shrewish ex-wife. Tracy gamely informs us that she goes out on her first date with Bob wearing “hippie beads,” a “pekaboo pantsuit,” and magenta bodypaint. You’ve gotta love the early ‘70s. The storyline however follows the clinical nature of the novel’s tone, with Tracy carefully following the doctor’s orders as she goes on dates with Bob and then takes him back to their room at the Foundation (which is audio taped for later study), gradually preparing him for eventual, full-blown sex via massages and other stuff.

This story spirals into strange territory as Bob becomes obsessed with Tracy, who succeeds in getting him to beat his problems with impotency. But when Bob can no longer abide by the Foundation’s stipulations that they wait to have sex, he breaks into the files, finds Tracy’s real name and address, and bursts into her home one night (while her husband’s conveniently out of town and her children are upstairs sleeping) and rapes her! And you know it’s the ‘70s when Tracy royally gets off on it, the only sour note being when one of her kids comes downstairs and nearly breaks up the festivities. Also, this rape is seen by the Foundation as a huge sign of the program’s success!!

Next up we have Maria, who becomes a surrogate once she’s discovered her husband is gay – it’s her wish that, if she is paired up with another homosexual man, she’ll learn through the Foundation how to “fix” him, so she can do the same to her husband. This story isn’t as enjoyable as the one before, mostly because too much of it focuses on Maria’s sad story, how she was so bummed to discover that her husband digs other men, but how she gradually learned to accept it. In fact, too much of the stories are devoted to backstory, but Maria's especially just seems to go on and on. 

Eventually Maria becomes a surrogate, and she is hooked up with Paul, a gay man who wants to “go straight,” as it were, and after a lengthy period Maria succeeds. Here we have yet another appearance of “Dr. Walters’s sex machine,” which is used to anally stimulate Paul(!) to the point where he’s able to have sex with Maria. This story, like the one before, ends with group sex, as Maria and Paul go to work on Maria’s husband! (The previous story by the way ended with Tracy, Bob, Tracy’s husband, and Bob’s new girlfriend all going at it in a “happy ending.”)

The third story sees a male surrogate, John; we are informed that male surrogates are quite unusual, and typically come from medical backgrounds, getting into the program for “research” purposes. (Sure they are.) John is especially unusual in that he’s 24 and a virgin, and he’s hidden his virginity from Dr. Walters and Mrs. Cummings. His first case sees him administering help to Sandy, a pretty young girl who is unable to enjoy sex, due to having been gang-raped at a young age.

This story is actually somewhat touching at times, with Sandy distrustful of men in general, and slowly learning that not all of them are scum. Not that Davidson doesn’t once again serve up some ol’ robot-screwing, as believe it or not John, during his testing to become a surrogate, has sex with an acual robot girl! At least, that’s how it’s described, with false but realistic skin and hair and various wires and gizmos connected to its nether regions. John humps it, realizing it’s his first time. It’s all pretty crazy, and it’s too bad the whole book isn’t as wild as these parts; instead, the author prefers to maintain a clinical, pseudo-scholarly tome.

The final story returns to the more trashy vibe of the first. Gail is our narrating surrogate, and like John she’s kept a secret from the Foundation; namely, that she’s a masochist, and gets off on being beaten around. In a preface the doctor explains that Gail was mistreated by her dad, who made it clear that he wanted a boy, and eventually she learned that the only way to incur any attention from him was to piss him off. Thus she now subconsciously tries to piss off the men in her life, so they will give her “attention.” Currently she’s dating a lunk named Bruce, who enjoys demanding that Gail blow him when he isn’t slapping her around.

Gail’s case is Scott, a young married man who suffers from premature ejaculation. As with the John/Sandy story before, this one entails Gail patiently working with Scott, trying to break down his defenses until they can have full-on sex. Also like the previous story, Davidson works in an emotional element, as through the caring and good-natured Scott Gail realizes that there are nice guys out there who will give her attention without her consorting to piss them off or whatever. Finally she breaks it off with Bruce and gets engaged to some nice dude. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t feature any robot screwing.

As mentioned, Davidson sticks with the clinical tone throughout most of the book. In each and every story there are moments where Dr. Walters or Mrs. Cummings will deliver blocks and blocks of expository dialog about reproductive organs and sexual problems and whatnot, so again it seems clear that Davidson was either a doctor (or doctoral student) himself, or that he really was going for the “true story” approach with The Sex Surrogates. But for whatever reason Signet decided to show its hand and acknowledge that the book was pure fiction.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shark Fighter

Shark Fighter, by Nicholas Brady
No date stated (1976), Belmont-Tower Books

One of Len Levinson's more elusive novels, Shark Fighter was published under the pseudonym “Nicholas Brady,” which was a house name at Belmont-Tower (who couldn’t even be bothered to put a publication year on the book). According to Len, BT editor Peter McCurtin came up with the concept, of a man fighting sharks for cash, and Len ran with it. 

As Justin Marriott mentioned in his article “Labyrinth” in Paperback Fanatic #27, Shark Fighter is so scarce that usually doesn’t even have any copies listed. So safe to say, it’s a hard novel to find; I was lucky to find my own copy online at a nice price, after random searching over the years. There’s also no e-book edition, at least not yet. This puts me in a strange position, as I’m about to rave about Shark Fighter -- I loved it, and it was one of my favorite novels yet by Len.

To be sure, this novel has absolutely no pretensions. It’s just a straight-up pulp tale about an ex-Navy frogman named Sam Taggart who accepts an offer to fight two sharks on live television for two million dollars. But man, the novel’s a lot of fun, and this lack of pretense just adds to the charm. Taggart is part of the reason; like most every other Levinson protagonist, Taggart is a no-nonsense guy who is focused on two primary things: women and money. Having served his time in ‘Nam, he now enjoys life as a self-described “beach bum” on the fictional Caribbean island of Makura, where he hunts sharks for a living.

Len capably captures the beach-read aesthetic of trash fiction. I almost wished I could book my next vacation in the Republic of Makura, which we are informed lies midway between Cuba and the Bahamas and measures 80 miles long and 20 miles wide. Here Taggart lives basically an idyllic life as he voyages around on his motorboat, smokes copious amounts of island-grown “ganja,” and bangs whatever female he can talk into bed. He’s chosen to make his living in this dangerous profession, hunting sharks and selling them to the chefs of the island’s many five-star hotels. Taggart doesn’t even make much on the deal, and acknowledges to himself that he basically has a death wish. He just likes to risk his life killing sharks.

There’s a fair bit of shark fighting in the opening pages, as we see Taggart on a regular work day, putting on his Scuba gear and taking on various sharks with a speargun that’s equipped with explosive-tipped spears. Once he’s sold the dead sharks to his various hotel contacts, he gets to his other primary pursuit: chasing tail. Taggart sets a precedent for a Levinson protagonist who scores with the most ladies, racking up an impressive eight women over the course of this slim novel. And he only has to pay for a few of them.

First there’s Susan, a “mulatto showgirl” Taggart basically uses whenever he’s feeling randy; Taggart is soon warned by the Police Chief of Makura to stay away from her, as a high-ranking official is courting her. Susan doesn’t factor into the novel much, and at first I thought the main female protagonist would be Pamela Thompson, a young blonde vacationing from America who repeatedly throws herself at Taggart, who keeps brushing her off for being too young. But then Pamela too is dropped from the narrative; given the frequency of her appearances in the first half of the novel I thought she was going to return at some point, but it never happened.

It turns out gradually that Taggart’s top girl is Alison Dandridge, a dropdead gorgeous brunette who has often been featured modeling in Vogue magazine. Taggart sees her one night and falls into instant lust. This entails several scenes of Taggart putting the moves on Allison, who is a self-proclaimed “whore” who will only sleep with men who have money. Hence she has no interest in beach bum Taggart, despite being attracted to him. Allison is vacationing here with Bob Jones, a rotund and balding entrepreneur who has millions of dollars, and who eventually makes possible the novel’s main event.

The first half of Shark Fighter hopscotches around various plots. First there’s the already-mentioned deal with Pamela, after which Len moves on by introducing Hector and Maria Ramirez, a married couple who turn out to be Cuban gangsters. Hector approaches Taggart with a job: a few thousand dollars for Taggart to venture into a shark-infested part of the ocean to retreive a certain box which was lost in a shipwreck. Taggart instantly deduces that this box contains pure heroin, and thus ups his payment.

This entire sequence is pretty bloodthirsty, with the trio going out on Taggart’s boat, locating the box, and instantly being attacked by Mafia goons who come after them on faster boats. A fierce firefight ensues, with Taggart gearing up and taking on the mobsters underwater, knifing them and shooting at their boats with his explosive-tipped spears. What with the mobster villains and the tropical setting, it all comes off like Len’s earlier Sharpshooter installment Night Of The Assassins. But unlike Johnny Rock, Taggart has no particular relish for “tasting Mafia blood,” and tries to get away from the bloody scene without being discovered.

Taggart is an interesting character to say the least; he’s all id, and throughout the novel he barges from one confrontation to the next, all while pondering “how often it is so difficult to be a human being.” He escapes going to Makura’s notorious prisons by giving the heroin-addicted Police Chief the box, but immediately thereafter runs afoul of the cops again by instigating a barfight, Taggart storming away from his latest spurning by Alison and asking a trio of American women if they’d like to have an orgy! Taggart celebrates his freedom from jail (again granted by the complacent Police Chief) by going to a posh cathouse and ordering three women for the night – “one white, one black, and one Oriental.”

Beach bum Taggart has money to blow, now, thanks to Bob Jones, who has approached Taggart with his own offer – for Taggart to fight a shark on live television, for one million dollars. Taggart in his usual manner tells Jones to make it two sharks for two million. Jones gives Taggart a few hundred thousand for downpayment, and Taggart as mentioned spends it on the three hookers, though it must be said that Len doesn’t get too explicit in the ensuing orgy. In fact the sex scenes, while frequent, are rarely graphic in Shark Fighter, at least when compared to some of Len’s other novels, like The Bar Studs or Where The Action Is

The anything-goes spirit of the first half of the novel gradually leaves once Taggart’s on his way to becoming rich. The biggest change is Alison, who not-so-coincidentally is suddenly interested in him, even coming over to his newly-appointed hotel room in the Regency and offering herself to him. She claims she’s in love and that it has nothing to do with the fact that Taggart’s now famous and will soon be rich (that is, if he survives). Taggart doesn’t believe her – not that this stops him from screwing her. Eventually she even leaves Bob Jones, moving in with Taggart and thoroughly messing up his head; Len works in a “doomed lovers” storyline between Taggart and Alison, sometimes to the detriment of the novel’s forward momentum.

But as Taggart finds himself granting more and more interviews (set up by PR man Len Robinson, surely Len’s reference to himself and his earlier PR days as seen in his later novel Hype!), he becomes more and more famous – and disaffected. The novel, despite being an obvious cash-in on Belmont-Tower’s part on Jaws (which Len slyly references twice in the novel), almost comes off like Rocky, with Taggart downward spiralling as the big date gets closer and closer. Getting drunk and high every day and skipping his rigorous workout schedules, Taggart instead takes to fighting with Alison, calling her a whore and tramp and insisting that she’s only with him because she wants his two million dollars.

In fact, as the pages grow more thin the reader wonders when in fact this Great Shark Fight is even going to happen. And even in the home stretch, Len focuses more on Taggart’s internal plight with a drunken blowout that sees him going once again to a whorehouse – where he’s abducted by a group of communist terrorists. Instead of being a plot divergence, Len uses this as a means to get Taggart more involved in his fate; whereas before he could care less if he lived or died, now he will give his two million dollars to the People’s Freedom Party of Makura, to help them escape the tyranny of corrupt President Bomack.

Finally the big day arrives, and Taggart like a regular Rocky Balboa has gotten in fighting shape at the last moment – and just like Rocky it’s only after he’s reconnected with his number one lady. After various melodramatic breakdowns and spats, Alison and Taggart make amends before Taggart gets in the pool to fight the sharks; but I do love how Len eases up on the sap by having Alison offer Taggart a few snorts of coke! The actual shark fighting event only lasts a few pages, with Taggart armed with various spears and his trusty bayonet going up against two tiger sharks.

Len rightly understands how anticlimatic this is, given that Taggart makes his living, you know, fighting sharks, so he ups the ante by having the Police Chief set two more tiger sharks into the pool. Due to his informants the Chief knows that Taggart, upon winning, plans to make an anti-President Bomack speech to the reporters of the world who are here covering this international event, and thus this speech must be prevented. Once Taggart has easily dispensed of the first two sharks, the Chief’s people “accidentally” let loose two more sharks into the pool.

So the finale sees a greatly-outnumbered Taggart desperately fighting for his life. The sharks have been starved for a week, Taggart has smeared blood on his body to attract them, and he’s down to just a few weapons. Spoiler Warning (and I’m only giving it away because the novel’s so damn scarce): Taggart lives, but not after suffering heavy damage, including the loss of his left eye. However, Alison really is there for him, and claims she’s going to stay with him “forever,” even though he has given away his two million dollars as promised. The end.

Len fills the novel with those topical ‘70s details I enjoy so much, with people sitting on shag carpets while smoking high-grade dope and listing to reggae music on quadraphonic stereo systems. Taggart himself has a fondness for getting ripped on that native ganja and listening to Pink Floyd records, which I thought was pretty cool. Beyond that though the novel just brims with that ‘70s feel I have always been so enamored with, from the fashions of the jet-set to the liberal attitudes toward sex and drugs.

And as mentioned Len really captures the whole beach-read feel. Part of the novel’s thrust is that Taggart’s life falls apart when he comes into money; he’s much happier in the more plot-free early half of the novel, and Len brings to life the whole tropical feel, with Taggart living on his boat, fishing for fresh seafood, and eating roasted lobster and coconuts by the fire in a lagoon. Taggart loses all of this once he accepts Bob Jones’s offer, and thus is separated from his idyllic “beach bum” life, moving into the posh and opulent Regency Hotel. Soon after, everything pretty much goes to hell, with Taggart separated from the sea, his boat, and his freedom.

I don’t know, maybe Shark Fighter is like the trash fiction equivalent of The Old Man And The Sea. Or maybe not. At any rate, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and regret that it’s not more easily available – though with some persistence you should be able to turn up an eventual copy.

Len recently sent me his thoughts on Shark Fighter:

When Joe Kenney asked me in e-mail to write something about Shark Fighter, to accompany his review - my mind went blank. I wrote Shark Fighter nearly 40 years ago, hadn’t read it since, and didn’t remember anything at all about it. 

In order to comply with Joe’s request, I needed to dive deeply into the memory hole. Gradually certain details came to mind. It all began back in the early 1970s, when I received a phone call from Peter McCurtin, my editor at Belmont-Tower, inviting me to his office for discussion of a novel he wanted me to write. After I arrived, he described the novel’s basic premise: a guy agrees to fight a shark on closed circuit TV for a million bucks. To my best recollection, the cover art already had been completed.

For context, this was during the great Jaws craze, when the media was full of articles and commentary on the movie and on shark lore. So Shark Fighter essentially was an effort to tap into that mass media fascination.

I never saw the Jaws movie because evidently it was a waterlogged horror story, and I don’t like horror stories. Their principal goal is to scare me, and I’m scared enough as it is.

I felt qualified to write an underwater shark story because I’d done some snorkeling in South Florida during the year and a half I lived there, and also dived several times with regulator and tank strapped to my back. So the undersea world was familiar and enjoyable for me. I’d also watched many undersea TV programs by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I even read his book The Silent World. So all things considered, I felt enthusiastic about writing Shark Fighter.

I still have the contract in my files, signed April 13, 1976. The stipulated delivery date was May 31, 1976. I was supposed to get paid $500.00 upon execution of the contract, and $500.00 upon acceptance of the manuscript, plus a royalty schedule but don’t remember any royalties paid.

I departed Peter’s office and dived into writing Shark Fighter. Now, after passage of so many years, I don’t remember anything about how it was written, and at first didn’t even remember the plot and characters. The only reasonable response was to sit down and actually read it.

To my astonishment, I couldn’t believe it was so interesting. It read as if written by someone else. I couldn’t put it down. All my various obsessions and preoccupations of that era are in the novel. I’d often fantasized about living on a boat in the Caribbean, and one of my highest career goals was to become a full-time beachcomber. Naturally I’d always wanted a beautiful Vogue-type model to fall madly in love with me. 

Shark Fighter evidently was wish fulfillment expressed in the form of a novel. While reading, I couldn’t help noticing how smoothly and quickly the plot moved along. A reader cannot guess what will happen next, perhaps because the author didn’t know either. The characters all have numerous neurotic compulsions and seem believable. The island of Makura apparently was partially based on Haiti under the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, partially on the Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and partially on a trip I once took to Nassau in the Bahamas. Shark Fighter even has a fairly happy ending, unlike many of my novels.

As usual, a few typographical errors either were overlooked or inserted by the Belmont-Tower copy editor. The big shark fight at the end has a sentence that doesn’t know left from right, which is a bit confusing. Some sentences contain too many words. Perhaps the Belmont-Tower copy editor inserted them out of concern for grammatical correctness over swift narration, or maybe the culprit was me.

Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but Shark Fighter doesn’t come across as simple-minded trashy fiction. It’s more of an adventure melodrama with echoes of Joseph Conrad. What a great movie it would make. I’m very proud of this novel, and grateful to Joe for bringing it to my attention. Perhaps I really wasn’t the lowdown hack that everybody including me thought I was. Unfortunately, Shark Fighter isn’t yet available as an ebook.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tracker #7: Shock Treatment

Tracker #7: Shock Treatment, by Ron Stillman
April, 1992  Charter-Diamond Books

According to Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction, Don Bendell wrote the first six volumes of the awful Tracker series, but was fired by publisher Charter-Diamond when he requested to be credited under his own name, rather than the “Ron Stillman” house name. Why anyone would want to put their actual name on such an execrable series is beyond me, but still, that’s one dickheaded move for Charter-Diamond to pull.

And yet, you won’t be surprised to learn that this seventh volume of the series, penned by some still-unknown writer, is one whole hell of a lot better than Bendell’s contributions. I’m not saying Shock Treatment is great or anything, but it didn’t make me want to go out and kick a few puppies, like Bendell’s novels did. In fact, the very reason that I couldn’t take anymore of his novels is what lead me to skip ahead to this installment, just to see how another author handled Natty “Asshole” Tracker.

In true “freelance author” spirit, this “Ron Stillman” quite clearly has never read one of the earlier Tracker novels and treats Shock Treatment as if it’s the first volume of the series. Tracker is much less of a dickhead, finally, and Stillman even makes him friggin’ human, if you can believe that. While Tracker’s still a one-man army with a tech-savy background (and a fighter pilot to boot), we learn here that, unlike in Bendell’s Tracker #1, Tracker was just part of a team that came up with his high-tech optical gadgets. 

Tracker’s godlike status is thankfully toned down; once again he’s truly blind, and uses his overly-described sci-fi sunglasses to see via SONAR and video inputs and other stuff. Stillman must’ve read a few issues of Popular Science, because the novel is filled with lots of incidental detail on Tracker’s software and how it operates. One neat addition is an “ATR” feature Tracker can activate, where the artificial eyes will constantly scan his surroundings for whatever it is Tracker is searching for. 

Another big change is the tone of the series. Gone is the stupid, sophomoric nature of the previous books, replaced with what at times comes off like a Hard Case Crime-esque vibe. Seriously! Tracker here isn’t an unstoppable commando who counts even the US President as a fan; he’s more of a shadow warrior, a covert operations type who prefers to stay in the shadows and only launches into action when necessary. Even the plot is more down-to-earth, with Tracker in Mountain City, Colorado, to try to prevent an old friend named Jeff Purdy from committing murder.

The first 30 or so pages are quite slow-moving, with Tracker sort of lurking around and stalking the citizens of Mountain City with his high-tech eyes. While this Ron Stillman is actually a pretty good author, he does tend to page-fill and wheel-spin, giving unnecessarily detailed background on various places, people, and things.  It gradually develops that Mountain City is a hardscrabble town, recently brought to its knees by a white collar embezzlement scheme which has left the citizens ready to riot. The local police appear to be nothing more than hired goons, bought off by the shucksters who committed the fraud, and Tracker’s come here at the request of Mrs. Purdy, who claims her husband, ruined due to the fraud, might attempt to murder one of the shucksters.

It’s all very mystery-suspense, with Tracker witnessing the assassination as it happens, but due to his fancy eyewear he sees that Jeff Purdy didn’t even pull the trigger. This is one element this version of Ron Stillman greatly excels at, something which always evaded Bendell – how exactly Tracker would benefit from his optical enhancements. Here he can see in infra-red to know that his friend’s pistol never even fired, and also he can detect another body in the next room. Not that this will help Jeff Purdy, who Lee Harvey Oswald-style has been immediately blown away (by the crooked cops, of course), so as to keep his mouth shut.

The action scenes are also more believeable. Tracker uses his martial arts skills to escape certain death, but instead of laying hordes of fighters to waste like in the Bendell books, this fight comes off as very realistic, with the murderous cops impeded by the enclosed space and Tracker using his wits more than his muscles. And Tracker’s escape is a taut sequence which sees him nearly blown away by the actual gunman, who escapes in a getaway car – which is then destroyed by a mysterious van that fires ball lightning!

Tracker himself is almost killed by the occupant of the mysterious van (whom we readers know is the James Bond-esque villain Doctor Shock), and after his own car is destroyed an even more taut sequence ensues in which Tracker has to scale across a canyon wall while the cops are shooting at him. It’s all very First Blood. But these cops are really just thugs, lead by the corrupt Lt. Boyd, whose mountain-sized underling Maggard now wants Tracker’s head on a platter, given that Tracker knocked out a few of Maggard’s teeth with a side kick. This elicits one of the novel’s many humorous moments, when Tracker later discovers one of Maggard’s teeth embedded in his boot.

Whereas the previous Tracker novels tried to be funny but just came off as dumb, there’s actually some genuine humor in Shock Treatment, like Tracker’s infrequent run-ins with a hot dog vendor named Gene. Stillman also delivers some nice, movie-esque banter between Tracker and an apparent femme fatale named Anne, dialog which to me has a bit of a Raymond Obstfeld ring to it. And speaking of that Anne – Tracker believe it or not isn’t a demigod here, and women don’t fall down at his feet! Stillman builds up a nice chemistry between the two, one that’s fueled by barbed insults and mocking put-downs, but utimately goes nowhere, as Anne, the only female in the novel, has just a few lines.

The crime fiction vibe continues as Gene, who turns out to be a smalltime crook who works for a guy named Mitch, takes Tracker to see his boss. Mitch heads up an organization that’s opposed to Lt. Boyd and his goons, and Mitch promises Tracker that he can help him uncover what’s really gone down in Mountain City. Stillman seems pretty adept at bringing the small-town underwold to life, and there follows more dark humor where Mitch and his goons place bets on Tracker and some goon as they fight in Mitch’s bar. But unfortunately this sort of thing gradually takes precedence in the narrative, so that more interesting aspects like Doctor Shock are given short shrift.

In fact, the latter half plays out anticlimatically; developed bad guys like Lt. Boyd and Maggard are perfunctorily disposed of (and not even by Tracker), and more time is spent on a group of inbreeds who attack Mitch’s bar at Boyd’s command. After all this is dealt with, Doctor Shock finally appears, and you wish he had shown up sooner – he turns out to be an egomaniac named Professor Moxon who has a group of “worshippers” who follow him around (Anne one of them), listening enraptured to his outpourings of wisdom. Here we learn the details of the Mountain City fiasco, which all turns out to have been the doings of a Howard Hughes-type named Clayton, whom Shock is gaining vengeance upon, Shock himself having suffered from Clayton's financial plottings.

Tracker’s even given the brush-off in the climax, reduced to sitting under armed guard while Shock fires up a massive lightning generator and destroys Clayton’s far-off retreat, Ultima. But rather than Tracker doing anything, it’s Shock’s own arrogance that does him in, and the lightning generator backfires and everything goes to hell. Shock and his cult fall to their doom, while Tracker gets involved in a protracted fistfight with some random thug. To say it’s all sort of unsatisfying would be an understatement – but still, good grief is it better than the earlier novels in the series.

It’s the same thing I said about Psycho Squad, but I wonder if this “Ron Stillman” was actually Simon Hawke, who wrote the Steele series, which was also published by Charter. Shock Treatment has the same focus on plot and character over action, the same “real-world” vibe, the same tech-savy details, and the same snappy dialog from its underworld characters. Another thing that leads me to think it might be Hawke is that the final few pages of Shock Treatment feature an excerpt from the novel Sons Of Glory, a Simon Hawke paperback original from Charter Books.

Whether or not it was Hawke, I’m pretty certain whoever wrote Shock Treatment is the same person who wrote Psycho Squad #2, as the two books are similar in many respects. I’ll be curious to see if this same author wrote the next volume of Tracker, which turned out to be the last.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Death Merchant #21: The Pole Star Secret

Death Merchant #21: The Pole Star Secret
March, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Picking up a few months after the previous volume, this installment of the Death Merchant is a direct continuation of Hell In Hindu Land, so you should probably read that one first. As we’ll recall from that novel, hero Richard Camellion discovered friggin’ aliens in India, and while there he was informed that there were two more spots on the planet in which these beings rest in some sort of stasis.

We reunite with Camellion while he’s en route to the second of these spots, which happens to be in the North Pole. Once again Camellion’s been given full control of the mission, with a nuclear sub and a squad of “Special Sea Commandos” (which I assumed were Navy SEALs, but turned out not to be) at his disposal. Unlike the previous volume Rosenberger takes his time building up the narrative, and doesn’t just throw you into endless action scenes; in fact it isn’t until around page 50 that we even have any action.

Given how mediocre Hell In Hindu Land was I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy The Pole Star Secret, but this turned out to be my favorite Death Merchant since #36: The Cosmic Reality Kill (which was the best one I’ve read). Like that later volume, this one at least attempts to tell a story, instead of featuring endless gunfights. But anyway Rosenberger develops an air of mystery as Camellion and his CIA and military colleagues grill a pair of Soviet scientists whom Camellion abducted from their weather research station in the North Pole.

The scientists claim there’s an underground world beneath the Polar cap, a place they refer to as Thuleandia. While the others are incredulous, Camellion informs them that the scientists aren’t lying, and further goes on to tell them in the most blasé of manner that in his previous adventure he met aliens called “Sandorians,” and learned that one of their ancient outposts was Thuleandia! The Soviets are here not only to explore this supposed underworld paradise, but to also conduct weather-warfare experiments. This latter point proves to be the central plot of the novel, rather than the aliens.

As usual Rosenberger goes all the way, filling 190 pages of small print with overly-described gunfights, bald exposition, and lots of technical data about nuclear submarines. But I have to say, none of it is terrible, like Rosenberger’s Mace stuff. Also the metaphysical element is back, sometimes to a humorous degree, with Camellion making mystical pronouncements to his dumbstruck colleagues, about life and death being just a dream and how the purpose of life is to lead to death, and etc. And once again Rosenberger has that bizarro element at play, like when in Camellion’s introduction he informs us that the Death Merchant is “dressed in a scarlet jumpsuit, black Wellington boots, and eating raisins.”

And also per custom Rosenberger populates the tale with a lot of redshirts who eventually run together and who you have a hard time telling apart. But as for the main ones we have McAlpine, the CIA contact, Colonel Hurdbetter, the leader of the Special Sea Commandos, and Earl Wolfe, one of the SSC dudes, who likes to use a crossbow. We also get occasional cuts over to the Russian perspective, as the Soviets have sent their own sub here, and after an early firefight between Camellion and team with the Russians, the “pig farmers” are all alarmed that the Death Merchant himself might be here in Thuleandia – apparently the dude and his exploits are so mysterious and infamous that he’s become a legend even in the USSR.

When the action finally does start it goes on for a while, as expected, but again, it isn’t terrible like some of Rosenberger’s other stuff. It’s mostly relegated to Camellion and the SSC team foraging through Thuleandia, which is a lush forest beneath the Polar cap, accessed via a “dry chamber” in a passageway in an underwater mountain. An artificial sun shines from the ceiling, and while the foliage is strangely lush and abundant, there is no fauna, or indeed any sign of life other than the Russian sub at the other end of the chamber. Camellion and team intend to make their way to the alien dome, which they must find – cue lots of detail on how difficult it is to navigate when in the North Pole, as all bearings show “north.”

The alien dome by the way appears to be made of stainless steel and measures 250 feet high and 150 feet wide. But that’s about all you’re going to find out about it. Despite tidbits dropped early in the novel, that the dome was created centuries ago by aliens and that maybe there are giants in Thuleandia, The North Pole Secret drops all of this stuff when, during a skirmish with the Russians, Camellion discovers that the dome is surrounded by an invisible force field. After confirming this, by throwing a grenade at the dome and watching as the grenade disappears, Camellion basically says, “Screw it; let’s head back for the sub.” Seriously! 

Given that actual aliens appeared in the previous volume, I wonder why Rosenberger didn’t deliver with his bizarre promises about Thuleandia. But then, given how casually the whole alien aspect was dealt with in Hell In Hindu Land, it was probably no great loss – I’m sure we all recall how Camellion in that earlier novel was like, “Huh. Aliens. Interesting. Now let’s go kill more pig farmers!” But once he realizes that the force field around the dome is too advanced for any of them to penetrate, Camellion decides to leave Thuleandia – and mind you this is after about 50 or so pages of endlessly-detailed gunfights, with Camellion blowing away Russian “slobs” and “goofs.”

But yeah, all the alien stuff is just dropped, and Camellion and team leave Thuleandia and concentrate on destroying the Russian polar station. The final 90 or so pages play out in typical Death Merchant fashion, with Camellion leading an assault on an enemy compound. First though we have a submarine battle, after which we get lots of egregious exposition on how great Lee Jurras and his weapons designs are (the book is even dedicated to Jurras). We also get lots of exposition on how Camellion and the commandos will survive the cold weather during the assault; the Navy men basically can’t think for themselves, and look to Camellion to explain everything, even what they’re going to wear in the frigid temperatures.

Also as is typical from Rosenberger, the climax features tons of redshirts getting killed, and you have a hard time remembering who they are. But of course it ends with Camellion being the only one who is right about anything, and successfully blowing up the polar station. The Thuleandia stuff is brushed under the carpet; Camellion has the sub commander blow up and thus block off the underwater entrance to the mysterious underworld, and that’s that.

As for the aliens, Camellion just sort of forgot about them for a while – the trilogy didn’t wrap up until the thirtieth volume of the series, The Shambhala Strike, which I’ll be reading next.

Monday, April 7, 2014

NYPD 2025

NYPD 2025, by Hal Stryker
May, 1985  Pinnacle Books

Betrayed by a misleading cover, NYPD 2025 is in fact a men’s adventure novel, one very much in the over-the-top vein of The Hitman and Soldier For Hire. And it’s just as right-winged, “Hal Stryker” serving up a future world in which the goddamn Liberals have taken hold of America…hell, they’ve even opened the country’s borders to immigrants!

One coud read NYPD 2025 as either a work of warped genius or a bunch of fascist drivel, and either reading would have sufficient evidence to back it up. At any rate what can be said is the book was intended as the first installment of a series, a series which no doubt was canceled due to the collapse of Pinnacle Books. Perhaps the world is a sadder place without a second volume of NYPD 2025, but at least we have this one, which despite being credited to a house name is copyright George Henry Smith, a prolific pulp writer whom I’ve never before read.

But if this novel is any indication, Smith was not only one heck of a right-winger, he also had a goofy sense of humor. NYPD 2025, despite serving up gallons of gore, has a positively humorous bent, and what with its colorfully-named and masked protagonists it comes off like an R-rated ‘80s cartoon. In other words, pretty much just like Doomsday Warrior, only without the postapocalyptic setting. It’s got the same over-the-top vibe that comes off like genre parody, but, like with The Hitman or Soldier For Hire, you suspect the author doesn’t intend it to be a parody.

Anyway, it’s 2025 and we meet our hero, Captain Zack (we later learn his name is Zack Ward, but Smith constantly refers to him as “Captain Zack,” which should give you an idea of the book’s tone) as he’s put on trial in Long Island, New York. Zack is a battle-hardened Ranger who has spent the past several years fighting in Central America. He’s been away from America for so long that the country is basically new to him (a convenient means for Smith to shoehorn in lots of expository dialog and description, all for Zack’s benefit of course), but we glean from all of this that newly-elected President Buchanan has banned warfare and thus Zack’s special forces team has been fighting down south on their own (“defending Mexico,” we’re informed). Zack is now considered a “war criminal,” and is to be executed asap.

The future world Smith creates is very hard to buy, and in fact the author himself doesn’t seem sure how far he should go. Sometimes NYPD 2025 comes off like a cartoonish satire, other times it appears to be in dead earnest. But either way it very much comes off like another pulpish future, that of Howard Rheingold’s earlier Savage Report. Only whereas Rheingold’s “future” 1994 was more of a positive nature, Smith’s is downright dystopian…I mean, the goddamn Liberals have taken over, and in a major way – there are no laws (except for those enforced upon the police, of course), the country’s borders have been opened to all and sundry, and “President-For-Life” Buchanan prefers to use the title “Mahatma.”

After more exposition Zack finally discovers he’s being held by goons of the PSP, the Producers’s Security Police, who work for SPA, the Solidio’s Producers’s Association. It takes a while until we learn that “solidios” are sort of holographic/interactive snuff films in which viewers can sexually interract with the stars via brain implants, or something like that. But anyway since there are no laws and all “art” is endorsed by the government, these multimillion-dollar solidio snuff flicks are not only legal but incredibly popular to boot. One of the major problems of NYPD 2025 by the way is that Zack is obviously disgusted by all of this, and he and his fellow cops will represent decency and morals and etc in their fight against such backwards thinking – but the thing of it is, it appears that the entire country is crazy about solidios and the ultra-liberal world “Mahatma Buchanan” has created!

Zack is saved by the sudden arrival of a masked group of people, lead by Judge Portia van Wyck, a black-garbed young woman who wears a “greek goddess” mask. Along with her comes Officer Murphy, a hulking Irish cop in a Keystone Kops mask, MacTavish, an equally-muscular Scotsman (can’t remember his mask), The Professor, a slim black man in a white mask who uses a Thompson submachine gun and quotes Shakespeare while in combat, and Ferret, a short guy who wears a ferret mask. These people claim to be the New York Police Department, and Portia is the acting judge of “the city-state of New York.” She’s here to take Zack…not to free him, but to put him on a trial of her own, as he is considered a war criminal in Buchanan’s America, and given that the SPA have brought Zack here to Long Island, he has fallen into her jurisdiction.

Here ensues a gory battle in which the NYPD and the PSP go at it, with Zack stuck in the middle. Heads get blown off, organs get ripped out, and lots of people puke up blood – in fact, there’s a fair bit of vomiting going on in NYPD 2025, Zack even tossing his cookies when later Portia shows him a solidio snuff film. Portia and Zach have an instant banter going on, and even though Portia claims she’s here to arrest Zack, he still finds himself siding with her as the lesser of two evils. Portia also proves herself merciless, as during the getaway she metes out her “sentencing” for two SPA goons by dropping them a few hundred feet out of their aircar. This action scene does sort of drag on, though, in particular a two-chapter sequence in which Zack merely attempts to cross over a ledge! But this is just the first indication of Smith’s skill at page-filling.

Portia, who turns out to be a gorgeous blonde (of course), later puts Zack on trial in her penthouse study/office. Strapped into a chair and served drinks by a robot on wheels, Zack defends his actions in Mexico and elsewhere. He’s a stone-cold patriot and was raised that way, and since he hasn’t been in the US for 25 years (leaving when he was still a child), all of this Liberal stuff is bizarre to him. Turns out this was all just a mock trial; Portia wanted to see if Zack would defend his beliefs, even if he knew he would suffer for them. Zack having proven himself, Portia offers him the job of Officer in Charce of NYPD Ten, Combat Operations Program – COP. This is of course the masked group of characters Zack fought against the PSP with, but in addition there’s also Fu, a Chinese guy who wears a Fu Manchu mask, and Andy Jumbles, a two-headed, four-armed android.

As for those masks, they go hand in hand with Smith’s unbelievable future world. Portia explains that they are “smudge masks,” made of a rubberlike substance that fits like a second skin. Beyond show they’re to filter out the “smudge” that pollutes the environment, thanks to the terrorist actions of the Luddites, a more militant version of the old technology-hating faction. The Luddites have destroyed all electricity and nuclear generators (their actions of course legal in Buchanan’s America), and now the country gets its power from coal. Thus, a permanent cloud of coal smudge obscures the city, and one needs a smudge mask to breathe. But anyway, Portia already has Zack’s mask – it’s a grinning skull, and she informs him that his team codename will be Captain Death.

Zack’s first case is the recent kidnapping of Indira Buchanan, daughter of the “Mahatma.” Sources believe that she will be used in a big-budget solidio snuff film, to be killed by the Slasher, most famous of the solidio killers. President Buchanan has fled to his ashram to meditate, which we’re informed is his standard response to any problem, so it’s up to the NYPD to handle the case, despite all of the restrictions placed against them. Zack’s plan is to infiltrate the solidio studios of Dynamic, producers of the Slasher films, as an extra, and to get in the graces of solidio superstar Foxxy van Pelt (“van” apparently a popular naming convention in 2025, or just a sign of Smith’s lack of imagination when creating female names). His goal is to use her as bait in drawing out the Slasher.

So begins the second half of the novel, which follows more of a procedural nature as Zack investigates his top three suspects on who the Slasher might be. They’re a strange bunch, from Reverend Everett Edwards (a mega-famous televangelist-type known for denouncing solidios), to Sandy Mondo (a tattooed, purple-haired newsreporter who, per the current trend, actually sings her reports to a rock backbeat), and finally Sheldon Gilbert, chairman of the Culture Defense Committee (an older guy who claims the solidios are perfectly legal and instantly deduces that Zack is a cop).

Smith serves up occasional action scenes, as Zack and Foxxy are attacked by hired goons, but man they’re just padding, like an endless sequence where the duo is chased by goons in another aircar. Foxxy, who at first is sickened by Zack’s “bloodthirsty” nature, of course soon becomes attracted to him, to the point where she’s sidling up on his lap and asking if he’d like to feel how “juicy” he’s made her. Smith skirts over the sex, just letting us know it happened – though he’s all over the more luridly violent stuff, like a detailed description of a solidio Portia shows Zack, in which the Slasher lops off some poor actress’s breasts and other delicate parts before beheading her.

Unfortunately the novel sort of grinds to a close; after Zack is nearly killed by more goons (and is once again saved by the appearance of Portia and the other members of NYPD Ten), he uses Foxxy as bait during the filming of the next big solidio picture and waits for the Slasher to show. Oh and I forgot to mention, the Slasher is a hulking individual who wears a purple turban and a yellow veil, which should give you yet another indication of the type of novel this really is. But the outing of the Slasher’s real identity seems to come out of Scooby-Doo (spoiler alert: it’s Gilbert, the old guy, which isn’t believable in the least), and Smith wraps up the Indira subplot very unceremoniously (turns out she ran away to pose as another Slasher, so as to kill Foxxy, so Indira herself could become a big solidio star…or something).

Smith definitely had this novel in mind as the first installment of a series. Many of the characters are set up with the potential of becoming regulars, in particular Sandy Mondo, who both provokes and propositions Zack when they meet. This is a good scene, very bizarre, as a fully-nude but tattoo-covered Sandy cavorts around Zack, bluntly asking, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to fuck?” Instead she serves to piss Zack off, who finds that this woman gets his goat more than anyone else ever has; it appears that Sandy Mondo is Smith’s take on the whole “shock jock” fad of the mid-‘80s, taken, like everything else in the novel, to an absurd degree. It also seems clear that she would’ve become a constant thorn in NYPD Ten’s side, had the series continued.

But NYPD 2025 ends with the series ready to take off – the President will no doubt cut funding given that Zack has punched Indira while arresting her, so Foxxy van Pelt announces that she’s quitting solidios and wants to join the force, funding them with her billions of dollars. However it wasn’t to be, and this novel was the one and only entry in the NYPD 2025 series. Smith by the way passed away in 1996, and I wonder if he even started on a second volume, or if Pinnacle went out of business before he could.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Premar Experiments

The Premar Experiments, by Robert H. Rimmer
February, 1976  Signet Books

The victory novel of the sexual revolution! -- from the back cover

Robert Rimmer gained fame in the mid-‘60s with the publication of The Harrad Experiment, a novel about an initiative at Harvard University in which male and female co-eds roomed together; there was even a film version (starring a young Don Johnson!), followed by an unrelated sequel. (I’ve never seen either film, but I do have the LP soundtracks, for some reason…)

The Premar Experiments was Rimmer’s mid-‘70s followup to Harrad. Once again taking place in Boston, this novel documents a new Harvard experiment in which the “Harrad method” is applied to lower-class, multicultural students. They will live in communes, males and females sharing a new roommate every several months, both white and black (other ethnicities apparently don’t factor in). “Premar” stands for “premarital,” and through some reasoning I didn’t quite catch, Rimmer has it that if these kids live in an open sexual relationship with a new mate every semester, it will lead them into becoming better, more understanding adults.

I’ve never read The Harrad Experiment, but it’s my understanding it’s written in a simliar format, as the transcripts of the various students and “Comprars” (ie “commune parents,” the older leaders of each commune), only in Harrad it was journal entries. Which is to say, the entirety of The Premar Experiments is relayed like dialog, spoken onto audio cassette and later transcribed. In this way the novel almost comes off like James Robert Baker’s magesterial Boy Wonder – only a whole hell of a lot less funny.

You see my friends, Robert Rimmer is a True Believer. He’s also a True Socialist, and this novel could almost be subtitled “The Sensuous Socialist” or the like, to tie in with that whole ‘70s “Sensuous” paperback fad. The societal engineering perpetrated upon the naïve students who attend Premar is disgusting, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve lived in Texas for the past several years. No, the goal of Premar is to basically brainwash these kids into a sort of group mentality that shuns independent thought – indeed, at one point one of the creators of the program states that thinking for one’s self will not be one of Premar’s tenets! 

Anyway, getting away from the “elitist” confines of Harvard and Boston proper, the Premar communes are set up in Topham’s Corner, a fictional section of Boston’s Dorchester district, a lower-income area of the city mostly comprised of poor Irish-Americans. The spearhead of this experiment is Dr. Philip Tenhausen, who also was the creator of the Harrad program (and appeared in that novel as well). Tenhausen however is only a peripheral character this time, appearing here and there in other characters’s sections. The novel itself belongs solely to the students and their slightly-older Comprars.

There are a lot of characters, and they talk a lot. Again, the novel is made up their dialog only, but this is a pretty expressive and descriptive cast, so in effect the novel comes off like a series of first-person narratives by a variety of characters. One failing however is that most of these characters sound alike, all of them spouting the same rhetoric. And one of the major problems with The Premar Experiments is that it’s too damn long – 426 pages of densely-packed, incredibly tiny print in this mass market paperback edition. The early pages especially can be rough going, documenting how the program was initiated and the Comprars were hired; these pages are also very thick in the whole late ‘60s radical ethic, making the novel seem even more dated.

This is very true for one of the major characters: Bren Gattman, a “Hindu Jew firebrand” who is Abbie Hoffman in all but name. A 28 year-old know-nothing know-it-all (as Homer Simpson would call him), Bren is one of those characters you just can’t help but hate. But the thing is, Rimmer is obviously enamored of him, as Bren can do no wrong and knows everything there is to know about everything. A famous countercultural icon who bucks authority and fights the man, Bren is nonetheless a doctorate student and conjoins his own similar ideas for an inner-city commune with the Premar ideas of Dr. Tenhausen. Bren is asked to become a Comprar in the Topham’s Corner commune, but in order to become one, he has to be married; for reasons never properly explained, Comprars are required to be married couples.

Bren sets his sights on Ellen O’Day, weak-hearted daughter of famous Boston conservative Republican councilman Dancer O’Day. Rimmer shows his left-wing roots in the (thankfully few) sequences with Dancer, who blusters reactionary rhetoric like a straight-up cliché. Anyway Ellen truly does have a weak heart, such that at 25 she’s never left Boston, has never had sex, and is bed-ridden most of the time due to medical concerns that her heart might rupture. Despite this she is interested in the revolution movement and ends up meeting Bren after arguing with him during a lecture he gives at Harvard. A bizarre romance ensues, in which Bren successfully gets Ellen away from her domineering (and of course, wrong about everything) father and into the Premar program.

Rimmer plays a few tricks with continuity, jumbling up the transcripts so that they jump from “prelude to Premar” stories from Ellen, Bren, and others from three months or so before the program begins, to matching these alongside later transcripts from students who are actually in the Dorchester commune in the fall semester. At first I thought Rimmer was doing this to perhaps set up and play off little mysteries or reveals, but gradually it appeared moreso that he was doing it so that it didn’t come off as a huge info-dump early on with lots of backstory about how Ellen et al came to be involved with Premar. Of course, another (and better) option would’ve been to cut all of this backstory and just start right in with Premar already a reality, but whatever.

Anyway the Bren/Ellen storyline plays out over transcripts from later in the semester, from the kids attending the experiment. Apprently 48 kids are placed in the three Topham’s Corner communes, but Rimmer only focuses on a few of them. There’s a promiscuous girl, a corn-fed boy from the sticks who’s never even kissed a girl, an “angry black” guy (more on the black characters later), and a heavyset girl who lives with him the first semester – and indeed we learn it was her choice to start with him. Why? Because we eventually learn that her dad was friggin’ murdered by black youths in a robbery, and thus she wants to “prove” to herself that she doesn’t judge all black people for his death.

And meanwhile Bren not only gets Ellen to fall in love with him, but he also takes her virginity. Now Ellen has to cope with the fact that she’s in love with a Jewish firebrand who’s also sleeping with a black girl, Merle Blanc, the wife of Bren’s comrade-in-arms, fellow revolutionary Rais Daemon. The first few hundred pages of the novel play up on the Rais mystery; a native of fictional Caribbean island nation St. Noir, Rais is a hulking, dashiki-clad black man who has led riots in the US (where he was once jailed for attacking a police acquaintance of Dancer O’Day) and is now back in his homeland, but he’s supposed to be in Pemar, working as a Comprar with Merle.

Yes, friends, all of this Rais-on-St. Noir stuff is straight out of Island Paradise – and just as unwanted. Seriously, the Rais Daemon material has absolutely nothing to do with the novel proper, and comes off like Robert Rimmer attempting a “black radical voice” for large stretches of the narrative. We get long excerpts of Rais’s much-ballyhooed “Walk Before God,” a speech delivered behind bars and later published in various newspapers. We get long narratives from Rais’s point of view about various beliefs, political, religious, and etc, and of course how wrong they are – just like Bren, Rais Daemon knows everything there has ever been to know. Just ask him! And what’s more, writing as a black character gives Rimmer freedom to use all manner of racist epithets; he especially does this when writing from Merle’s perspective.

But when Book Two opens, about two hundred pages in, we discover that Rais has been hiding in St. Noir, where he’s fostered a revolution which inadvertently caused the crash of a 707, killing all 160+ passengers! All that is save one – Laura Stone, a white lady who was the only survivor, and who Rais came across while he was paddling his getaway boat away from St. Noir! But that’s not all – Rais has taken the girl captive, as a representative of all white society he’s against, and plans to ransom her, but meanwhile he’s caring for her (complete with disgusting description of how he’s cleaned her off, due to her menstrual period) and falling for her – oh, and Laura Stone, not that Rais yet knows it, just happens to be the sister of Bren Grattman!

Now we have the makings of a sure-fire melodrama. Too bad it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the novel. I mean, there’s even a part where Merle goes to St. Noir to find Rais, only to discover he’s sleeping with her kid sister, and when Rais informs Merle he’s heading off on his fishing boat with her sister and it’s time for Merle to go back to the US, Merle chases after him, friggin’ sticks her hand down his pants and grabs his dick, and screams “It’s mine! It’s mine!” as she slides along on her knees after him, still holding onto it as he walks away. So as you can see, Rimmer can in fact write trash when he wants to.

It’s strange, though, because the Rais/Laura storyline seems to be lifted whole-hog from one of those “Savage Desire” or whatever Romance novels that were all the rage at the time, stuff like The Savage Sands and the like, where a civilized woman is abducted from her home by some “barbarian” who eventually breaks down her ladylike and puritan values until she becomes a “fuck machine” – Laura’s words to describe herself, in fact, in a transcript of her own, which she puts onto audio tape on the island upon which Rais Daemon keeps her prisoner…though a willing prisoner. But this whole section is just so weird in that it has nothing to do with the novel and indeed could come off as a novel of its own, the snobbish and arrogant married lady in her late 30s who falls in love with a younger black man on a deserted island.

All of which is to say, there are moments of Trash Mastery here and there in the novel, but for most of it they are obscured by the societal engineering of the Premar initiative. And it truly is disgusting, as these kids are molded into perfect little socialists – football and other sports are eschewn, as the Premar board specifically wants to drum out competitiveness. The kids are ordered to record their thoughts every single day, and to listen to the recorded thoughts of the others in their specific group, so that there are no secrets and everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. They are also told what to wear, but for the most part they are ordered to show up for group events naked. They have to take baths together. Each day they have to take part in a “Human Values” class in which they go over the (Premar admin-mandated) reading list and discuss all in an open environment.

In short, they lose the ability to think for themselves. And due to the endlessly-detailed first-person narratives each of them leave for us, we see how they grow into these perfectly-adapted kids who…do everything Bren or Rais Daemon say. Seriously, the amount of hero-worship the kids have for these two losers is saddening (and again, one could say it’s moreso an indication of Rimmer’s own hero-worship). Every “transcript” from the Premar kids is filled with “Bren thinks” or “Rais says” and etc. Also, putting myself back in my teenaged mind…I can’t imagine why any kid would want to attend Premar. Sure, sharing a dorm room with a girl would be great and all, but still – the loss of individual freedoms would greatly outweigh the chance of scoring.

But Rimmer goes on oblivious, packing his pages with inordinate detail, even reams of exposition from Bren and Rais as Premar has an open night with the locals, welcoming Topham’s Corner into the rubric – and for that, Rimmer can’t even get his theme straight; Bren and Rais had a pre-Premar idea for something called Confamiliaum, a sort of merging of a community into one entity, and the final third of the novel jettisons the Premar stuff and focuses on “Confam,” as the duo (and their drones the kids) attempt to get the people of Topham’s Corner to unite with Premar into a single community. It’s all just so lethargic and boring.

The soap opera stuff returns with the appearance of Rais, who finally shows up at Premar, bringing Laura Stone along. One has to wonder why the Premar board would allow Rais to work as a Comprar, as he’s nothing but friggin’ trouble, and indeed in reality would put the entire Premar project at risk, given the publicity he receives due to the previously-thought-dead Laura Stone returning with this man who kidnapped her, a man whose baby she is about to have – that is, after openly staying with him in a rundown commune in Boston filled with a bunch of naked kids. But regardless, this storyline takes us into the homestretch, as Bren and Rais make an unlikely ally in Rocky Stone, Laura’s husband, who – while Laura is having Rais’s baby – decides to go ahead and help Bren and Rais fund Confamilaum, which of course the Topham’s Corner people are all for!

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the part where Bren screws his own sister.  While she's pregnant with Rais's child.  While his wife Ellen is in the hospital recovering from her latest heart trauma.  And not only does she not have a problem with it, everyone just shrugs it off as Bren helping his sister to "heal!"

In a way, The Premar Experiments is just as far to the left as the works of Joseph Rosenberger or Mark Roberts are far to the right. And it’s just as fantasy-based as the novels of those two authors. Reading this book from the perspective of a generation later, the whole thing just seems so stupid, wrong-headed, and doomed to failure. And, given that I was born in 1974, I would’ve been the generation Rimmer hoped would become the first full “Premar generation” or whatever. Now, my generation has its own problems, but I’d like to think that none of us when we were teens would’ve been dumb enough to willingly enter some school that would just remove all of our freedoms and etc. And I’m not speaking from some lofty perch; I grew up in a destitute town that would make this fictional Topham’s Corner look like New York City.

Ironically, I discovered The Premar Experiments due to an ad in the back of my mass market paperback copy of Cyra McFadden’s The Serial. It’s funny because both novels cover sort of the same things, but whereas McFadden’s is a spoof of these sentiments, showing how ultimately dehumanizing they are, Rimmer actually means it, man. Looking up more info on the book (which is scant) I came across the preview to a 1999 self-published edition on Amazon, where in a 1998-dated preface Rimmer stated that he still believes that a Premar program would be beneficial.

Also it would appear that Rimmer suffered the same literary fate as my man Herbert Kastle. Graced with hardcover editions and publicity early in his career, by the time the later ‘70s came around Rimmer was relegated to mass market paperback editions only; The Premar Experiments was Rimmer’s last hardcover, after which Signet published his novels as paperback originals. I’ve picked up some of these, and despite my issues with this novel I look forward to reading them; Rimmer does dole out some good prose, if you can get past the overt socialist/communist ethic.