Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Revenger

The Revenger, by Jon Messmann
September, 1973  Signet Books

Martin, while capable of violent action, is more introspective than many of his fellow Mafia busters. -- Brad Mengel, Serial Vigilantes Of Paperback Fiction

Here begins the six-volume saga of Ben Martin, surely the most boringly-named protagonist in the men’s adventure genre. Curiously, Signet Books does little to inform the reader that The Revenger is the start of a series, which makes me suspect that perhaps this was intended as a standalone novel, but got turned into a series once the sales figures came in.

As Brad Mengel mentions in the quote above, and as Marty McKee states in his reviews of two Revenger novels, hero Ben Martin is prone to a lot of introspection and soul-plumbing. At his core though he’s a primo shit-kicker, and part of the brunt of this first volume is how Martin strips away the veneer of civilization so as to “make the Mafia sweat with fear.” Like most other ‘70s-‘80s men’s adventure protagonists, Martin was a badass in ‘Nam, and gradually we learn he was a “specialist” (not that Specialist) – “a specialist in death,” who pulled off so many assassinations that he became legendary among the VC and NVA. 

Now he lives in NYC, where he runs a produce wholesale store. Messmann really goes for the mundane here – I mean, “Ben Martin, produce wholesaler.” Doesn’t really scream excitement, does it? Ben has a pretty wife named Donna and a six year-old son, Ben Jr. The first half of The Revenger is heavy on scene-setting, where we see that Ben and Donna disagree on things but still love one another – cue an explicit sex scene, the first of a few in the novel. Messmann also sets another standard; whereas most men’s adventure novels feature the protagonist having sex with every woman but his wife or girlfriend, all of the sex scenes in The Revenger are between married couples.

Trouble rears its head with mobsters, employed by New Jersey-based Joe Colardi, who are extorting the various shops near Ben’s produce store. When two of them come to his place, Ben practically mutilates them, including a memorable part where he puts a knife through one’s hand. Interestingly, throughout the novel whenever Ben goes into “Revenger mode” Messmann writes the scene in present-tense. The only other men’s adventure series I know of that’s written in present-tense is The Mind Masters, which curiously enough was not only also a Signet publication, but was also courtesy another “Jon” – that is, John Rossmann. I’m betting the two authors were not one and the same, but it is curious that even their last names were spelled so similarly.  (Also, like Rossmann, Messmann always refers to his protagonist by his first name.)

Anyway, after forcibly evicting the mobsters (and even going to the local precinct to ensure charges are pressed against them) Ben puts himself on Joe Colardi’s radar. Recently instated as a caporegime by Don Gennosanti, Colardi lives opulently with his wife Annette and teenaged daughter. He’s in high standing in his WASP-ish community, despite the well-known fact that he’s in the Mafia. Colardi decides to forego consulting with the Don and instead sends a couple men to kidnap Ben Jr.

With his wife in a panic and the cops unable to find the kid, Ben of course knows that Colardi has his son, though there’s nothing to prove it. Donna urges Ben to call Colardi, to just give in to them to get their son back, but he won’t relent: he’s determined not to back down to the Mafia. It comes off as buffoonishly stubborn, but Ben’s philosophy is that too many have backed down to the mob. If more people were to stand up to them, their power and influence would disappear.

Ben makes the call, only for Colardi to rub it in, relishing the moment; he tells Ben to call back later, as he can tell that he still has a bit of rebellion in him. Then Colardi’s two goons screw up. Watching Ben Jr. in some downtown slum, they leave the kid alone for a moment, and he tries to escape…ending up falling off the roof of the building. The kid ends up dead, and now Colardi’s really in a panic. The goons weren’t even able to hide the body, as the kid was discovered moments after hitting the ground. It’s front page news, and of course when word gets to Ben and Donna, the two are destroyed, the latter a catatonic wreck, the former ready to go full-on into Revenger mode.

Messmann somewhat believably has Ben and Donna go their separate ways; she obviously blaming him for their son’s death, and Ben, beyond his own belief that he was in the right all along, understands that his wife will never forgive him for it. So he gets a room in a downtown slum and starts buying guns. Messmann also keeps it real with Ben not pulling off any comic book-esque feats; his kills in The Revenger are made with store-bought rifles and pistols, and his success mostly comes through his war-trained ability to stake out a place and wait in ambush.

Ben starts by blowing the heads off a few Colardi goons with a high-powered rifle, and later guns down a few more. Colardi of course knows who’s behind these killings, but no one can find Ben Martin. I figured Colardi would go the clichéd route and kidnap Donna, but luckily this is impossible, the cops surrounding her apartment building in case Ben comes back to visit her. For the most part, though, Messmann treats the “action scenes” with reserve, with Ben hiding from afar, sniping a few goons, and then hurrying off. Only a scene where Ben gets the jump (so to speak) on a Colardi goon who’s visiting his hooker girlfriend delivers the lurid vibe you expect from these ‘70s books:

The door breaks open at once and he is in the room, in the blue light of a small lamp with a colored bulb in it. Solly is still inside the girl, atop her, and Ben sees his face, automatic, instinctive fright and astonishment. He fires at the fleshy nakedness of the man, firing three times while the girl’s legs are still clutching him in her. Solly erupts in a shower of red as the powerful slugs tear into him, and the girl is covered instantly by pieces of his torn flesh and spilled insides, and she is screaming, kicking furiously, trying to tear away. But Sully is atop her, literally a dead weight, keeping her there in a last embrace, a final fuck as his body quivers in the death spasms.

Don Gennosanti enters the picture, pissed off at Colardi for botching things so terribly. There follows an interesting scene where the Don visits with Donna, requesting that she tell her husband to contact him. Donna insists that Ben will never come back, but the Don assures her otherwise. And sure enough Ben sneaks into their apartment that night, to say “goodbye” to Donna – cue another explicit husband/wife sex scene. When Ben calls the Don, Gennosanti offers up Colardi in exchange for Ben calling off his vendetta; he’s willing to sacrifice Colardi to restore peace. Ben agrees, telling the Don to ensure Colardi is on the Staten Island Ferry at 4:30 that morning – and for Colardi to keep walking around, as Ben prefers “a moving target!”

The finale is taut, more suspense than action. Colardi has secretly called in Frank Ganz, “the best contract killer” in the biz, to help, but of course Ben, lurking in black on the ferry, soon spots him. This was the start of a series, so I think it would be pretty obvious that Ben gets his vengeance. However what’s odd is that The Revenger is like Mondo in that it’s pretty clear our hero dies on the final page – in fact, Messmann introduces a theme with Donna discovering at the end of the book that she’s pregnant, and venturing off into her new life, she declares that the child will be named “Ben Martin” and will learn to never back down. In other words, our hero’s wish has paid off, and the future generation will learn from his steadfast refusal to submit.

So then I’m betting Messmann decided to leave his options open; the novel ends with a shot-up Ben falling, half dead, into the water as the ferry returns to port, floating to rest in some hidden jetty. You could read it either way, that he lives or dies. Had it not been turned into a series, The Revenger would’ve made for a fine, if overly philosophical, revenge novel. But given that this was just the start I’m very interested to see how Messmann follows it up.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Target: Doomsday Island (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #71)

Target: Doomsday Island, by Nick Carter
February, 1973  Award Books

Back in January 2011 Andreas Decker wrote a great overview of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series for The Paperback Fanatic #17. I hadn’t read one of those novels since I was a kid in the ‘80s, and I remember not being very fond of them. But Andreas’s commentary was so compelling that I decided I’d have to check the series out again, particularly the installments from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Given its back cover blurb about “pot and sex parties,” Target: Doomsday Island went to the top of my Killmaster read list. Apparently this volume was written by a Richard Hubbard, who only turned out one other entry in the series; I looked the author up, only to find I actually have an Award paperback published under his own name: Woodstock: One More Time, from 1971. I’ll definitely check it out someday, as if anything Hubbard has a gift for trashy, beach-read fiction.

Because humorously enough, there really isn’t much “men’s adventure” about Target: Doomsday Island. Superspy hero (and book narrator) Nick Carter himself seems unsure what the hell he’s supposed to do, given the vague mission his boss Hawk tasks him with. There’s this Howard Hughes-type trillionaire recluse named Grady Ingersoll who apparently owns the majority shares of a company that has created “Tripleheader” nuclear missiles, which are capable of automatically seeking out targets. These are money-savers, in that a country wouldn’t have to launch several missiles to ensure a hit; the missiles themselves would be smart enough to know if one target had been hit, and so would move off automatically to the next target.

Apparently what’s got Hawk’s superiors in a fuss is that Ingersoll has secluded himself in opulent Doubloon Hotel in Double Cay, a twin island resort near the Bahamas. One island is called Resurrection, and there Ingersoll owns several hotels and resorts, never venturing out of the one he lives in by himself. The other island is called Doomsday, and not only are no guests allowed on it, but there appears to be something shady going on there. Ingersoll now directs all of his communications to the outside world through the “Inner Six,” five young men and one very attractive lady, who are the only people to have seen Ingersoll in years. Hawk is concerned that Ingersoll might be under their control or perhaps has been replaced by a lookalike. 

Ingersoll monitors all guests at Double Cay Hotel via closed circuit TV, and calls in a select few to party next door at his private Doubloon Hotel. Here the “pot parties” of the back blurb come into play, with the mostly young crowd indulging in free dope while an unseen Ingersoll apparently monitors them on TV. After a red herring of an opening, in which Carter, vacationing in Vermont, thinks he’s saving a pretty young girl from her domineering, mobster father, the Killmaster is briefed by Hawk, who tells him he’s to pose as a successful rock manager who is vacationing in Double Cay. Part of Carter’s “research” actually entails visiting record stores and the like, and also growing a thick moustache, so he’ll look more like a successful young “hippie.” 

The majority of Target: Doomsday Island is basically beach-read fiction; other than Carter’s hardboiled narrative tone, there’s nothing about the novel that’s much different than, say, Island Paradise. We get lots of description of Double Cay and the sunbathing guests and the gorgeous ocean views. Hubbard doesn’t do much to bring to life the characters here, most of whom are young jet-setter types. He pours most of his character-building skills into the luscious Cheena Negrita, a stunning professional dancer with waist-length black hair and stupendous breastesses, whose exotic, dark-skinned looks are courtesy her mixed Cuban, Chinese, and “mulatto” heritage.

Cheena is one of those women who only exist in these kinds of novels: she’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with a body to match, and she’s there for Carter’s taking. She goes around in revealing outfits and talks in a sort of gutter English that’s very enticing in its own way, and after a few smouldering looks at one another it’s clear that she and Carter are going to have some hot sex, and soon. First though Carter snoops around Double Cay, posing as a super-hip rock dude. Meanwhile he spots some mysterious “Orientals,” who appear to be the exact same ones Carter ran into during a brief Tripleheader missile research trip to NASA on his way down here.

We get the briefest of action scenes as Carter’s jumped in his room one night, but he pitches the dude off the balcony and that’s that. He’s sure it’s these Asians, and in fact he learns they’re in the room right beneath his, but he’s more focused on finding out what’s going down on Doomsday Island and if Grady Ingersoll is really across the street in his secluded Doubloon Hotel. Carter figures that Cheena, given her status as a high-profile employee here, can be his “in,” so he of course mixes business with pleasure.

The two take a pleasure cruise on Cheena’s runabout and sneak onto heavily-guarded Doomsday Island. Here Hubbard delivers a pretty explicit sex scene, the second in the novel (the first being with that young girl back in Vermont, in the opening pages). I’ve read that early volumes of the series featured sex scenes that were clouded in purple prose; not so here, as we get to read all about Carter’s “long, sliding plunge” into Cheena’s nether region and the whopping mutual climaxes that ensue. In fact our narrator wants us to know he’s so good that Cheena tells him it’s the best sex she’s ever had and begs him for more.

But now firmly in business mode, a callous Carter, who suspects Cheena of being more than she pretends to be, demands that they sneak around Doomsday. He finds nothing of note, but Cheena’s promptly caught by gun-toting Asians and carted off, where she’s slapped around. Carter too gets caught; pretty easily at that. Only via some hidden weaponry does Carter free them, using the handy blade embedded in his sandals to gut a few of the Asians. (Goofily enough, Cheena’s all over Carter after their escape, even though he’s the guy who got her caught and beaten around.)

Sadly, those “pot and sex” parties (my favorite kind of parties, by the way) don’t even come up until the last quarter. As mentioned Ingersoll’s Inner Six pick out Double Cay Hotel guests and invite them over to Doubloon Hotel. Carter gets invited by the seductive Angela, the female member of the Six, and he and several others go over to the opulent playground next door. It’s just another pool, though, with copious amounts of grass up for grabs, but when they’re invited inside it gets kinkier. Here loud “throbbing” music blasts from speakers, incense clouds the murk, and the guests are invited by Ingersoll, who appears on a tv screen, to get high and have fun.

Carter’s a killjoy though, only puffing a joint when he realizes he has to, otherwise he’ll look suspicious. But then he immediately begins snooping, only to end up in a room with a massive bed and a nude Angela and a nude Cheena waiting for him. Turns out the gals are lovers, and Angela’s pissed that Cheena took Carter for herself, last night, as the women have a “sharing” policy. But what promises to be a sleazy scene changes course quickly, with those “Oriental” goons coming in and taking away Carter, who is bound and beaten, before the goons decide to just kill him.

Carter has hidden weapons and gadgets that even the Baroness would be envious off, including a mini-torch that’s sewn into a hidden pocket in his swimming trunks. After an implausible escape Carter doubles back for Doomsday Island, ready to bring the mission to a close. The ensuing action finale is anticlimactic for sure, with Carter again getting caught – but this time he discovers that Grady Ingersoll is indeed an imposter. Blithely telling Carter all his plans for conquest, the fake Ingersoll relates that he was once Ingersoll’s stand-in, a lookalike who decided to become the real thing.

And what of the real Ingersoll? Turns out he’s frozen in cryogenic preservation, just like Walt Disney. In fact he’s right behind a handy set of drapes; fake Ingersoll pulls them away so Carter gets a good look at the real Ingersoll, frozen and motionless, behind a high-tech glass pane. The Inner Six meanwhile are apparently hippie terrorists, or at least left-leaning youth, most of the males disaffected Vietnam vets and Angela a former Red Cross worker or something. Their goal is to use the Tripleheaders to show America how dangerous nuclear warheads are, and to do so they intend to strike Florida, where the President is currently vacationing.

But as mentioned the finale is perfunctory at best, Carter disposing of the Inner Six with his hands and appropriated weapons, the action barely described. Potential is wasted again and again; for example Angela is off-handedly dealt with, despite the build-up Hubbard has given her throughout the narrative. (Meanwhile Cheena, the last we see of her, is left handcuffed in her dressing room, and Carter just leaves her there!) At least the climax with Ingersoll plays out more satisfactorily, Carter chasing him to Doomsday Island where they have a very Bondish confrontation beneath the missile pylons.

And that’s pretty much that. Carter heads home and the denoument is handled in clumsy dialog, Carter doling out exposition on what the Inner Six and fake Ingersoll planned to do, and how he worked with the government of the Bahamas to clean up Doomsday Island. I mean, it all just reads exactly like what it was – a quick and dirty installment of an endless series as churned out by a contract writer. However, that’s not to say it was terrible or anything, and at the very least I look forward to reading more of these novels.

In the meantime, check out Zwolf's complete Nick Carter collection!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

John Eagle Expeditor #9: The Deadly Cyborgs

John Eagle Expeditor #9: The Deadly Cyborgs, by Paul Edwards
February, 1975  Pyramid Books

Paul Eiden returns to the John Eagle Expeditor series and more than makes up for his unfortunately-padded and boring previous installment, #7: The Ice Goddess. As we’ll recall, that volume had all kinds of potential for being a trashy, lurid masterpiece, with John Eagle venturing into an “Amazon Queendom” ruled by a man-hating temptress of ultimate depravity, but sadly Eiden spent more time documenting boring stuff like Eagle’s time among the Eskimos and overly-detailed games of chess.

But Eiden must’ve taken a college course in “Men’s Adventure Writing 101” or something in the interim, or who knows, maybe he even just read a few of the earlier volumes, which were courtesy Manning Lee Stokes and Robert Lory. Because in The Deadly Cyborgs Eiden once again delivers a pulpy, promising plot, but this time he doesn’t bog the entire narrative down with unecessary detours; instead, he gets right to the good stuff. In this volume, my friends, John Eagle goes up against cyborg Yetis!!

Eagle’s boss Mr. Merlin has a secret research station in the Himalayas: Base One, which is composed of various scientists and is guarded by Anotnio Da Zara, an old commando hand with a fondness for mountain-climbing; he commands a legion of Sherpas. One evening Da Zara comes upon a Sherpa corpse, and the poor guy’s been shredded. Soon enough Da Zara finds the attacker – and it’s an actual Yeti, a monstrous, shambling creature with red-black fur, long arms, and huge claws!

Da Zara blows away two of the creatures with a .44 Magnum, and after a preliminary autopsy the corpses are quickly shipped to Merlin, who as usual runs the show from his high-tech fortress on fictional Makaluha island in Hawaii. Turns out these aren’t just your everyday, garden-variety Yetis; they’re actually humans, but ones who have been cybernetically and surgically altered, with armor plating welded to their joints and thighs and chests. Also their eyes have been replaced by “stereoscopic cameras” and their ears are “parabolic microphones,” and somehow Merlin is able to deduce that they are the work of Dr. Chen Yu, a Chinese scientist who was raised in the US but now has a hatred of Americans because his acupuncture-teaching father was ridiculed there(!).

Finally, John Eagle is called in. His mission is to venture to Base One in the Himalayas, hook up with Da Zara and his Sherpas, and locate Chen’s secret fortress, where he is creating these cyborg Yetis out of the locals. Oh, and Chen is the appropriately-psychotic villain pulp fiction demands…plus he has a gorgeous woman, nude and in chains, captive in his fortress. This is Susan Blackwood, a 27 year-old British Intelligence agent who was posing as a defecting college student in Peking. Elizabeth is kept tied up and constantly naked as part of a psychological campaign on Chen’s part; he wants to break Susan down and then turn her into a female cyborg Yeti! (Also, you’ve gotta love artist Sandy Kossin’s interpretation of Susan, on the lower left-hand corner of the cover; in the immortal words of Sir Mix-A-Lot, “baby got back!”)

Part of the series schtick is a healthy dose of adventure fiction, with Eagle testing himself against the elements. The Deadly Cyborgs is no different, with lots of detail about Eagle acclimating himself to the rigors of mountain-climbing in the Himalayas. Da Zara (who immediately thereafter drops out of the narrative) hooks Eagle up with two Sherpas, Ondi and Ang Dawa, who go off on a few weeks of mountain-climbing with Eagle. As expected this stuff is pretty egregious and uninteresting, but serves its purpose of page-filling. On and on it goes, overly detailed, but at least here this immaterial stuff only lasts for a few chapters, instead of the hundred pages of banal page-filler we got in The Ice Goddess.

After Eagle saves a thought-dead Ondi from an avalanche, the trio returns to Base One and merriment ensues, with the Sherpas breaking out Nepalese hash, “reputedly the strongest in the world.” We learn here that Eagle is “a moderate drinker” and smokes pot and hash “only as a social gesture.” When Anidede, the sexy and mini-skirted English-speaking sister of Ondi, waltzes up to Eagle and tells him she plans to have sex with him, and also that “To make love after hashish is very, very nice,” Eagle obviously makes an exception to the rule, toking right away with her.

Of the three series authors, Eiden writes the most explicit sex scenes. Here we not only get thorough description of Eagle’s shall we say finger-based explorations of Anidede’s sensitive region, but also lines like, “He slammed his shaft into her body and felt the immediate clonic spasms of her vulva.” Or even: “He hammered his shaft into her with stallion vigor until his own release came.” Man, that’s one slammed and hammered shaft! A later sex scene, the expected one between Eagle and the perennially-nude Susan Blackwood, is just as explicit, though Eiden like Stokes and Lory never goes for outright sleaze, instead couching the dirty stuff in a pseudo-“literary” feel.

Eagle’s so caught up with Anidede that he doesn’t learn until the next morning that the cyborgs have again attacked Base One. Here Eagle sees his first cyborg corpse in person, and Eiden does a nice job throughout capturing their eerie appearance, with their glowing “lidless eyes” which are cameras. After this Eagle hooks up again with the two Sherpas and sets off in pursuit; if he can track the surviving cyborgs, Eagle can find the secret base Dr. Chen is operating out of. Despite repeatedly stating that only large-caliber guns can take down the Yetis, Eiden still has the two Sherpas armed with nothing more than their standard carbines, and even more strangely Eagle is merely equipped with his typical C02-powered dart gun. Eagle also doesn’t make use of his chameleon suit, which is also strange given its heating properties.

The dart gun proves effective against the cyborg Yetis, though; Eagle and the two Sherpas come across a few of them as they’re in the process of attacking some helpless natives. Eagle’s steel “flechettes” blast right through the cyborg armor, and his headshots “jelly” their brains. But as expected Eagle ends up alone after this gory battle, and only here does he don his chameleon suit, which Eiden like Stokes fits with a helmet, rather than the hood Lory describes. (This though leads to some unintentional humor, as Eiden will write that Eagle has “locked in” the helmet, but then pages later he’ll have Eagle, his hands full, placing the dart gun between his “strong, white teeth.”)

Susan meanwhile has been going through her conditioning process, transported from a “hard cell” to a “soft cell,” the former the expected dungeon with chains, the latter an opulent bedroom with its own shower and bathroom. In between the drugs and the conditioning, Susan discovers she has a secret accomplice here: Markov, a KGB agent posing as one of the scientists in Chen’s lair. Markov is able to secretly slack off on Susan’s enforced drug regimen; there’s a goofy bit where we learn that Chen intends to dull her senses and play her films of “happy cyborgs” playing in the snow, so Susan will want to become one!

One thing I wish Eiden had exploited more in The Deadly Cyborgs is, well, the cyborgs themselves. Eagle gets in that brief skirmish with them, but then the threat moreso becomes the Chinese soldiers moving in on the area. Eagle doesn’t know it, but Chen has been declared insane by the Chinese government, who is sending in the troops to take over his fortress. Also instead of action we get lots of detail on how Eagle uses plastique to blow his way into an air shaft into the fortress, where he finds himself in a sub-corridor. 

Dispatching the two Chinese guards, Eagle runs into Susan Blackwood, who in true series style is so horny (merely from hearing Eagle speak English) that she throws herself on him, demanding that they screw, right here and now. Only after the “orgaic frenzy” does Eagle chastize himself for this lack of discipline, giving in to his lust in the middle of a mission. But then, we’ll recall that Eagle has often had sex with some random woman moments after infiltrating an enemy base (off the top of my head, there was #2: The Brain Scavengers and #3: The Laughing Death), so you have to wonder why he’s so hard on himself this time – but more importantly, this sort of nonsense, to me, only makes the series such escapist fun.

The climax sees Eagle, Markov, and a still-naked Susan (who despite being nude brandishes a Chinese “burp gun” in true Girls With Guns men’s adventure mag fashion) holding down the corridor while Chen sends cyborgs after them. Here finally we have more Eagle-vs.-cyborgs mayhem, with a handful of the massive Yetis attacking with violent results. Once again Eagle fires his darts point-blank into cyborg eyes and ears, but this time Eagle himself suffers serious damage, his right thumb nearly torn off by a Yeti claw. This lends tension to the finale, where for once Eagle is more desperate than usual, even struggling to load a new clip into his dart gun. (As for the thumb, the novel ends with Eagle figuring Merlin will have “the best surgeons in the world” fix it, but given the lack of continuity in the series, I’m betting the injury will never be mentioned again.) 

Eiden holds true to the other series tropes, with Eagle’s companions suffering even more drastically. Again though, this author shows a strange quirk for focusing on the wrong stuff. Instead of playing out more on battles with the Yetis and Dr. Chen, Eiden instead rushes through all of that and spends more time with Eagle wondering why he has such a strong hatred for Dr. Chen(?!). Eagle continues to ponder this for the last several pages, while we get more detail of how hard it is for him to sneak out of the base with his mangled hand. (Oh, and Eagle realizes on the last page that he hates Chen because Chen’s cyborg Yetis are an affront to nature!) I would’ve preferred more of the, you know, cyborg Yeti stuff, and less of the pointless introspection.

I think I say this every time, but this is my favorite men’s adventure series. Well, this and Andrew Sugar’s The Enforcer. But as I mentioned above John Eagle Expeditor is just pure escapist fun, so much so that you can overlook the occasional tendency to pad out the pages. The three authors more than make up for it with pulpy plotting, a lurid vibe, and lots of sex – and besides, there aren’t too many other series that would feature cyborg Yetis as the villains.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Operation: Perfidia

Operation: Perfidia, by Leonard Jordan
April, 1975  Warner Paperback Library

Very different from any of his other books I’ve yet read, Operation: Perfidia was the first novel published under Len Levinson's “Leonard Jordan” pseudonym (though the book itself is copyright Levinson). Len told me once that this was his attempt at writing a John Le Clarre-type spy thriller, and it shows; while entertaining, Operation: Perfidia lacks the spark of the other Levinson novels I’ve read.

I think this is mainly due to the protagonist of the tale, David Brockman, a CIA agent who has just gotten out of Attica prison after serving eight years. Brockman is nothing like the typical Levinson protagonist: he’s dour, taciturn, and pretty much a cipher. In other words, he’s what you’d expect a real-life spy to be like, a faceless guy you’d forget moments after seeing. And while this could be factored as realistic, it doesn’t work as well when such a character is the star of the show.

Brockman as mentioned has served some serious time – but again, he’s such a blank slate that you get little feel for the hell he’s endured. The thrust of Operation: Perfidia is Brockman’s struggle to find out who set him up for this prison term and why, and also to find out what happened to his wife, Miralia. But he’s so emotionless, so sterile, that the reader feels little empathy for him. I mean, if it had been Alexander Frapkin sent to Attica for eight years, I’d certainly be rooting for him to find out who set him up.

The novel alternates between sections taking place in the “modern day” (which we can determine to be 1972, given that we’re informed Brockman was sent to prison in 1964) and backstory that documents Brockman’s involvement with what would become the Bay of Pigs fiasco, starting in 1960. In the modern section Brockman emerges from Attica as a highly-paranoid person, certain the Agency is stalking him. He’s clueless why he was sent to prison, having been set up on a fake breaking and entering charge, and the reader is gradually brought into his background as Brockman tracks clues around New York.

Another big difference about Brockman is that, unlike the average Levinson protagonist, he isn’t a horndog. Brockman’s still hooked on his wife, a pretty young Cuban revolutionary named Miralia Guzman; we see how they met during one of the flashbacks, while Brockman is stationed in Guatamala in preparation for the Bay of Pigs campaign. Maralia and her brother Julio are high in the revolutionary movement, and she and Brockman get in an argument the first time they meet, given Brockman’s pessimism about the plans for the campaign and its success. However Miralia still comes to him that night, stating that despite their political differences they have an obvious attraction for one another.

Now in the present Brockman wants to find Miralia, who has been missing since he was imprisoned, but to tell the truth it’s not like he’s rabid about it. This factors into the lack of emotion in the book, and Brockman himself – he hasn’t seen Miralia since the day he was arrested, and isn’t even sure if she’s still alive, but the way Brockman goes about trying to find her comes off as almost robotic, as if he’s doing it all by rote, and there doesn’t seem to be much drive behind it. Also, Miralia clearly comes off as a duplicitous person in these flashbacks, so much so that the reader is well ahead of Brockman by the halfway point, when he finally starts to suspect her of having something to do with his incarceration.

Brockman does though score with an old friend of Miralia’s, a heavyset Cuban lady who, having been Miralia’s gynecologist, informs Brockman that Miralia had a secret abortion while she and Brockman were married. The lady throws herself at Brockman, who ends up giving in to temptation, given his eight-year dry spell. But other than that, the sex scenes are relegated to the early ‘60s flashbacks, and there’s really nothing explicit throughout, even so far as the scant action scenes go. Again, the feel of the novel is more of a “straight” or at least standard spy tale, Len trying to keep things realistic.

Another thing missing from the typical Levinson tale is the sparkling cast of supporting characters. Unfortunately, none of them are very memorable, given that Brockman interracts mostly with Cuban rebels or fellow spys, with the former all being staunch idealists and the latter all dour professionals. The only minor character who has any spark is Ollie Rimsen, a circus dwarf who rents one of the rooms in the flophouse Brockman calls home in New York in the modern sections. In his few pages Ollie makes more of an impression on the reader than any other character in the novel, but unfortunately he’s gone too soon. Even Miralia, who is alternately a loving wife or a potential enemy, doesn’t really grab the reader’s interest.

When the Bay of Pigs fiasco goes down just as Brockman predicted, he finds himself an odd man out. Miralia no longer talks to him, too distracted as she waits in campaign headquarters for word of her brother Julio, who was part of the assault. Brockman has submitted many papers to his superiors that the campaign is doomed, but not until afterwards does anyone contact him about this, and this is merely due to the President’s desire to ferret out the people who were behind it and remove them from the Agency. Now Brockman works as a double agent within his own organization, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, Brockman eventually no longer even calling in to report.

There aren’t many action scenes in Operation: Perfidia, though at one point in the modern section Brockman’s jumped by a Latino-looking guy in New York. Brockman takes him out, but we never do find out who the guy was; Brockman assumes he was either CIA or one of the old Cuban revolutionairies. A strange vibe comes to the novel when Brockman gets into the apartment he once shared with Miralia in New York; visions of being tied to a bed and drugged hammer through his mind, and he passes out. Thoroughly rattled, he leaves New York and heads for Miami, where he thinks he’ll finally find Miralia.

The last quarter of the novel mostly takes place in 1963, as Brockman flashes back to a suppressed memory of how he started to suspect Miralia of being unfaithful, given how she’d often head off for New Orleans without him. On one such occasion Brockman followed her, secretly bugging her room; he came to the conclusion that she, Julio, and other Cubans were plotting the assassination of someone, likely Castro. The reader of course guesses they have someone else in mind. And by the time Miralia’s announcing she’s heading down to Dallas one November day, you can see where it’s going.

Here we have a bit more action, as Brockman surprises a group of Cubans in a Dallas hotel with a blazing Colt .45, and then quickly deduces from their radio chatter that they have more men in Dealy Plaza. Getting down there as quickly as possible, given the crush of spectators, Brockman arrives just in time to spot Julio and others toting rifles on the infamous grassy knoll – but when Brockman tries to get help, he discovers this is all much bigger than he suspected.

And actually that’s another problem I have with Operation: Perfidia; the JFK angle is introduced too late, and it’s a bit unbelievable, given how many people Len has involved in it. There’s no way so many people could keep quiet about it, with Brockman the only one who knows the truth – and, of course, suffering for it. For we learn it was his knowledge of who really killed Kennedy that got Brockman set up on that phony breaking and entering rap; that is, after he’d been drugged and brainwashed for a while by his Agency “friends,” Miralia included.

Brockman at least gets revenge, and Len pulls an interesting trick by having Brockman gain vengeance before we learn what exactly happened to him – it’s only after he’s dispensed justice that we get the long flashback to what happened in ’63. But again, his victory is a bit hollow, as despite the fact that Brockman’s life was torn apart eight years ago, the guy is presented as such a bland cipher that you feel little empathy for him, and there’s no vicarious thrill when he gains vengeance.

I enjoyed Operation: Perfidia, but I didn’t love it like many of the other Levinson novels I’ve read. While Len’s writing is strong and fluid, taking you from scene to scene with ease, there was just something off about it, like a sort of sterile feeling. Again, though, this is likely do to Brockman, who himself is pretty sterile. On the plus side, Operation: Perfidia is one of Len’s novels that’s available as an ebook, so be sure to check it out. (The original paperback by the way is deceptively slim – it comes in at 174 pages, but it has eyestrain-inducing small print.)

Len recently sent me his thoughts on the novel, and his comments on the manuscript’s original ending are very interesting:

I wrote Operation: Perfidia circa 1974 and haven’t read it since delivering the ms to Warner. I also never read the paperback published in 1975, assuming it was identical to my ms except for minor editorial fixes to grammar, punctuation and syntax. 

I don’t want to give away the plot because it was supposed to be a psychological thriller. But I will say that it partially concerned the Kennedy Assassination. 

Those of you not alive then probably cannot appreciate the impact of the Kennedy Assassination on America. Some commentators have called it America’s loss of innocence. 

I was working at my desk at Paramount Pictures at 1501 Broadway in NYC when the news broke. Everyone was in a state of shock. At first it wasn’t clear whether JFK was alive or dead. Then the death knell was sounded. The President had been assassinated. 

I couldn’t deal with it. Like many Americans, I believed the Camelot myth. Our beautiful world had been shattered by seemingly demonic forces. 

I went home to my pad on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village and didn’t go out all weekend. My eyes were glued to the television set as horrific events unfolded. I even watched live as Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and shot the cringing Lee Harvey Oswald. 

In days to come, conspiracy theorists went into high gear. Everyone was blaming everyone else. Few believed the Warren Commission Report. It seemed as if the foundations of America were being shaken. 

I read the Warren Commission Report and many other books and articles on the Kennedy Assassination, many of which contradicted each other. Gradually a theory formed in my mind amidst all the other concerns and hassles swirling around my life at the time. 

I quit PR and became a novelist in 1971. Soon I was writing pulp fiction for a small, not very prestigious publisher named Belmont-Tower that didn’t pay very well. I wanted to elevate myself to a prestigious publisher and make more money. In order to accomplish that great goal, I’d need to write a great novel. What should I write about? 

As I looked the market over, I felt most attracted by the kinds of novels written by John Le Carre, mainly because character development was an important part of his novels. He wasn’t simple-minded like some of the spy writers of that era. 

So I decided to write a John Le Carre-type spy novel that touched on the Kennedy Assassination. I called it Betrayed. The leading man was based loosely on me as a CIA agent. The leading lady was based on my first wife. The plot was based on my assassination theory at the time, which I no longer believe, but was credible and many still believe something like it. 

My then agent Elaine Markson submitted Betrayed to various publishers. An editor at Warner Paperback Library really liked it. I went to his office and he praised it to high heavens. I thought I was on my way to the bestseller list. 

Warner changed the title to Operation: Perfidia. For the first time, I could use whatever name I wanted as author. After much cogitation I decided not to use my real name. The novel was controversial and I thought someone might try to kill me, so decided on my first name and middle name, Leonard Jordan. 

When I received my author’s copies, I was appalled by the cover. It showed a guy holding an automatic rifle of strange manufacture, his trigger hand awkwardly bent. The painting of this guy was amateurish. Obviously Warner didn’t spend much on the cover because evidently the Warner brass didn’t like this book. Naturally it didn’t sell very well, so I returned to Belmont-Tower with my tail between my legs. 

I thought I should read Operation: Perfidia for this article. Having not read it for around 40 years, when I cracked my desk copy open, it read as if written by someone else. I don’t want to sound immodest, but I thought it pretty good. As I read, the story came back to me. I couldn’t wait for the ending, because I remembered it as very powerful and unexpected. 

As the plot was building to my fabulous power ending - SUDDENLY THE STORY CAME TO A SCREECHING HALT! I wondered if the pages has fallen out. It didn’t look that way. Evidently somebody at Warner had chopped off my great ending and written some new tag lines. At first I couldn’t imagine why. It wasn’t a long book to begin with. But publishers often do whatever they want with writers like me who have no clout. 

Then I thought that perhaps Warner might have seen the novel as possible first of a possible series, and wanted to keep the protagonist viable as opposed to the dark end I wrote for him. Whatever happened, the weak cover and new non-ending really torpedoed any chances the novel might’ve had in the market place. 

So that’s the backstory for Operation: Perfidia. It’s now available as an e-book and not selling well despite an intriguing cover. If I had any brains, I wouldn’t confess my true feelings about the truncated ending, because doubtlessly this confession will hurt e-book sales. But you shall tell the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Besides, there are lots of other Len Levinson e-books available with intact endings.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Executioner #6: Assault On Soho

The Executioner #6: Assault On Soho, by Don Pendleton
April, 1971  Pinnacle Books

I’ve been looking forward to this installment of the Executioner, given Marty McKee's sterling endorsement of its “kinky sex” and “healthy dose of sex, violence and sadism.” Don Pendleton wrote sleaze and porn novels before he hit it big with the Executioner, but he purposely chose to keep this series less lurid and kinky, mostly because he felt Mack Bolan’s hectic life wouldn’t allow time for such sordid affairs.

But for whatever reason he must’ve felt differently when penning Assault On Soho. In many ways, this installment is almost the source material for the Marksman, the Sharpshooter, and the countless other, more lurid imitations of the Executioner that followed. The focus here is on exploitation and sadism, and what with the Swinging London setting it should’ve been my favorite Pendleton installment of the series yet. Unfortunately though there are too many problems with Assault On Soho.

Bolan arrives in Dover, taking the ferry from France; after the heavy action of the previous volume, he wants to quietly skip through the UK and get back to the States. But he walks into a mob trap. A sexy British girl in a mini-skirt pulls up in a Jaguar and tells him to hop in. (Don’t you wish you lived in a pulp novel?) The girl is named Ann Franklin and she tells Bolan she’s been sent here to get him. She takes him to the Club De Sade, a swanky Soho nightspot that’s decorated in what I guess would be called Kinky Chic, with doorways shaped like female genitalia and lamps shaped like thigh-high boots.

Ann’s comrades in the club are two older men, one of whom is named Major Stone and monitors Bolan from a tv camera, speaking to him via speakers from some hidden location. When no one will tell Bolan what they want of him, he takes out his Beretta, shoots out the tv camera, and storms into the night. Charles, the club’s electronics wizard, has warned Bolan that the mob’s out there, looking for him. An outgunned Bolan uses his wits in a clever sequence, setting up some mob contractor as the fall guy while Bolan himself escapes unharmed.

The Mafia is here in too many numbers, though; in the expected breakovers to the mobster perspective, we learn that Danno Giliamo, a survivor of Bolan’s assault in #4: Miami Massacre, is here in London tracking down the Executioner. Danno’s working with Nick Trigger, an old-school Mafia hitman who now resides in London, acting as the “chief enforcer” for the UK branch. We also learn in a cutover to a long meeting in the US that the assembled Mafia heads have unified to kill “the bastard Bolan,” with one of them recommending he be set up by “Leo the Pussy,” aka eventual series-mainstay Leo Turrin, an undercover cop posing as a Mafioso.

But when Bolan finds that even Heathrow is swarming with mobsters, he’s happy to once again find Ann Franklin shadowing him, and goes with her back to her secret apartment. Pendleton really made his hero human, something that eluded many of the later Gold Eagle ghostwriters, and here he displays the utter exhaustion and paranoia that has befallen Bolan. The expected sex scene doesn’t happen, with Ann telling Bolan she’s afraid of men in general, but when she sees the hell he’s been through and the state he’s in, she curls up to sleep beside him, in what amounts to a moving scene.

Pendleton also brings to life Swinging London at times, like when Bolan briefly visits The Soho Psych, a club in which nude women pose like “mannequins” in glass cages, striking poses for the various colored lights that flash inside their cages. There’s also a disco floor with strobing psychedelic lights. But the Club De Sade sees the most action, with Bolan returning to find each room filled with various acts of sadomasochism, usually played out by actors, including a group of “devil women” in thigh-high boots who wield whips. Plus there’s a full-on orgy taking place in the main room. Here too Bolan discovers the corpse of old Charles, bent hideously over a torture rack.

One of the biggest problems with Assault On Soho is that Bolan is shuffled around and has no active part in the plot. He has no idea who the “Sades” are and what they want of him, and when the murders start piling up of people who work in the club he has no idea who is killing them and why. In fact, the novel is moreso a lurid murder mystery than an action novel; what few action scenes there are in the book are brief, but nonetheless memorable, like a lightning strike Bolan pulls on Danno and Nick Trigger, blasting at them with an Uzi. Otherwise this installment comes off more like a noirish pulp, with Bolan the clueless hero and Ann the innocent lady who seems to be hiding dark secrets.

But still, it’s all just sort of disjointed. Bolan ventures around the city with Ann, discovering more corpses, while meanwhile various Mafia factions fly into London. One group, Turrin’s men, is tasked with offering Bolan a truce. The other is made up of guys who want to kill Bolan. Whoever gets to him first wins. Pendleton builds up the suspense, with Bolan and Turrin meeting in a tense sequence at the Tower of London, but unbelievably he brushes it all aside, with Bolan taking off just as the two opposing factions get in a scuffle. And for that matter, there’s not even any resolution to this plotline – we just learn about its outcome through some off-handed comments Bolan makes at the end of the novel!

Instead Pendleton focuses on the Club De Sade storyline, which despite being so developed turns out to be just as simple as you knew it would be from the beginning – basically, Major Stone was swindling his clientele, and once Nick Trigger showed up, the two men began to work together. Apparently Stone called in Bolan so as to either make him the fall guy or to kill off Trigger, or both; I couldn’t really figure it out. At any rate, it ends with Bolan strapped to some torture device and Major Stone dropping his trousers and sidling up behind him! Pendleton delivers a nice moment though with Ann’s appearance, wielding a Weatherby rifle.

Really, this is a strange and muddled installment of The Executioner. Bolan himself is lost in it, and ultimately he has no impact on the events; he gets caught in the end, and Ann saves him, even dispensing of the villains herself. Bolan is relegated to taking out a few gunmen and running from the cops as he goes from one murder scene to another. And also, despite the sleazy tone, Bolan fails to score; Pendleton develops a long-simmer romance for Ann and Bolan, but each time they’re about to make it they get distracted. Finally Bolan’s had enough and tells her “so long,” heading off for what will hopefully be a more focused installment.

Pendleton’s writing is good as ever, with the same sort of forward momentum combined with an occasionally ponderous tone. He also has this quirk about introducing a theme and hammering it home a bit too thoroughly. For example, early in the book Charles, meeting Bolan, quotes Kipling, comparing Bolan to a tiger in a jungle. Through the rest of the novel Pendleton keeps employing this “jungle” motif, to the point where it sorta gets annoying. Also, the Bolan/Ann romance is hard to buy, with Ann deciding she’s in love with Bolan and Bolan feeling the same about her…hard to buy given that in just the previous volume, which was like a day or two ago, Bolan fell in love with that French girl and immediately thereafter swore to never get romantically involved again.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mafia: Operation Porno

Mafia: Operation Porno, by Don Romano
October, 1973  Pyramid Books

Delivering just the kind of ‘70s sleaze I demand, Mafia: Operation Porno is yet another paperback original copyright Lyle Kenyon Engel, the man who gave us such series as The Baroness, John Eagle Expeditor, Richard Blade, and on and on. However Mafia: Operation isn’t really a series, moreso just a group of five unrelated novels offering “inside looks” into the world of the mob, all branded under a series title and house name.

The books were each credited to “Don Romano,” a house name which according to this site belonged to three authors: Allan Nixon, Robert Turner, and Paul Eiden (who around this time was also working for Engel on the Expeditor series). Operation: Porno was written by Nixon and Turner, and man if this book is any indication, their other two contributions are must-reads. This one’s all about the mob’s venture into the lurid world of “skin flicks,” and it pushes all the right sleaze and exploitation buttons.

Our nominal protagonist is Luigi Canello, a 40 year-old New York-based mobster who oversees the Acme corp, one of the Mafia’s many legal enterprises. Canello is tasked by aging Don Appolito with boosting the family’s lackluster peepshow sales. After a bit of research Canello discovers that not only is the guy currently running the peepshow business skimming the profits, but he’s also been shooting such cheap footage, with junkies and burned-out whores, that he’s forced customers to move on to porn that’s more pleasing to the eye.

There follows one of the novel’s many enjoyably-sleazy scenes where Canello screens some of these cheaply-filmed “loops” for the don and his men, the authors explicity detailing each and every act, even how blowjob moneyshots are faked. Canello promises that for a ten thousand investment, he can go to Hollywood and put together a XXX-rated film that will rake in piles of cash; he’s even figured out how to make extra profits off of it, like selling stills to the porn mags that publish “beaver shots.”

Canello turns out to be such a screwed-up character that you can’t help but laugh. For immediately after the Don leaves, Canello lays down to nap…and the authors casually inform us that he wakens from an “erotic dream” about his own daughter! Yes, Canello is totally in lust with his gorgeous, 16 year-old “Lolita” of a daughter, all of it starting the other month when he caught her masturbating. Perhaps you’re now getting a picture of how sleazy this novel is. And it gets sleazier, as the authors not only document how Canello watched secretly as his daughter played with herself, but how he now sates his shameful lust on a hooker who looks just like her, paying her $200 a session so he can vicariously fuck his own daughter!

The authors open up the mob world for us a bit with the brief introduction of Jim Croce, a young ‘Nam vet who, Joe Skull style, has become a hitman, as he takes out the poor sap who was previously running the family’s peepshow business. In true pulp style the guy gets a near-sexual thrill from murdering. And the lurid stuff continues as we meet 18 year-old Helga Ryan, a super-busty blonde from Smalltown, USA who waitresses in a diner and, of course, dreams of Hollywood stardom. Naïve and good-natured, Helga is about as all-American as you can get, other than her first name, which is courtesy her Swedish mother.

Helga is sweet-talked into riding cross-country with a truck driver named Mack, who claims to be cousins with an up-and-coming director. This is actually true; the cousin’s name is Howie Jamison, and in Canello’s storyline we learn that he is the director who through various means gets the porno gig. Meanwhile Helga falls in love with Mack, who is the first guy to bring her to orgasm – cue a very explicit sex scene. In fact she wants to get married, and figures they’ll do so once they get to Las Vegas.

But the dark comedy ensues, as Mack brings along a co-driver, who one evening sneaks into Helga’s bed and fools her into thinking he’s Mack! After screaming rape she starts to enjoy it royally, and the two world-wizened truckers try to inform Helga that she’s a sex maniac and doesn’t need to worry about marrying Mack just because he can get her off, etc. And it of course leads up to the expected three-way, with the two guys getting Helga nice and drunk before double-teaming her.

So basically, a lot of the novel comes off like a more streamline, more lurid variation on Norman Spinrad’s Passing Through The Flame, with the good-natured sexbomb getting into hardcore porn. The authors spend quite a bit of time with Helga, so that you almost forget about Canello, who meanwhile goes about cementing his Family’s porn distribution network. Howie Jamison meanwhile turns out to be a hirsute “artiste” who thankfully has no pretensions about his art – he knows he does great work, and has won awards, but is willing to do anything commercial if the price is right.

The Mafia’s lack of mercy is displayed when Canello runs into any trouble. If he meets any pushback, a simple call back to the Family in New York and an “accident” will befall the troublemaker. Canello’s biggest run-in is with the a pair of brothers who have gone rogue from an LA Family. These guys run their own porn ring, and beat Canello near to death. After this the Appolito Family retaliates by hiring a group of notoriously-deranged bikers to crash the brothers’s next porn filming.

This is one sadistic sequence. The chapter encapsulates practically everything in ‘70s sleaze, opening with details on the porno filming, which is being shot on a large farmland. The 80 year-old owner is so excited by the activities that he bangs one of the girls while the crew watches – and then the bikers storm the property, blowing the old man away mid-orgasm. They butcher the other men, then line the still-naked women up. Hopped up on speed, the bikers have even less mercy than the mobsters; when one of the girls is too shocked to have sex, a biker jams his gun into an unexpected place and blows her away. It’s all so twisted that by the time they’re finished with the women, even the bikers have sated themselves – not that this stops them from lining up the girls and killing them.

For the most part, though, long portions of Operation: Porno come off like Hollywood-set trash fiction, with Helga introduced to the high life by Howie – that is, after he’s taken some nude photos of her and then had sex with her. The trash fiction vibe is particularly strong in a party sequence at some millionaire’s place, complete with famous faces, lots of drugs, and open sex all over the premises, including a “humping room,” where an orgy takes place. After a joint – her first ever – Helga loses all inhibitions and goes from modelling a fur coat with nothing on underneath it for the millionaire, to throwing herself among the orgiasts and taking part in the group sex.

But this is a dark tale, and Helga’s used by everyone she meets in Hollywood. A female casting director shows interest in her…and soon enough is trying out her new vibrators on her. An ad agency bigwig promises to make Helga the face of a new hair product, but only after the expected sexual favors. And Howie too uses her, in a bigger way, inviting Helga over for a “party” which is really a secretly-filmed portion of his porn film, Howie urging Helga to get stoned and “have fun” with the other men and women in the room, each of whom are paid actors who know what’s going on. When Helga sees the footage and throws a tantrum, Canello takes care of it by getting one of his women, a “friend” of Helga’s, to get Helga hooked on heroin.

The novel gets darker and darker, like your typical “true Hollywood story” taken to absurd degrees; in a blur of weeks Helga has become an addict, starring in so many porn flicks that she can’t even remember them. Soon she’s so messed up that she’s useless, and Canello unceremoniously fires her; now she’s out on the streets. Canello proves himself truly merciless, dispensing with Howie in even more ruthless fashion when the now-drunk of a director could prove to be a liability if Canello’s porn-producing company is ever taken to court. In fact Mafia ruthlessness becomes more and more pronounced as the novel goes on, the authors doing a great job of swindling you in the opening half into thinking they might not be such bad guys, after all. 

And it all builds to an even darker finale, with Helga, now as mentioned reduced to a heroin-blitzed street dweller, getting ripped on junk and deciding she wants a little revenge. Coming across a handy bayonet, she stumbles down to the porn studio’s set (where “Hotpants Henrietta” is being filmed), bullshits her way inside, and starts slicing and dicing the nude actors and actresses! It’s all so sleazy and dark and disturbing that you can’t help but laugh. And of course it builds up to a suitably-dark finale, at least for everyone but Canello, who blithely goes on with his life, more concerned that this latest teen girl he’s being sent photos of will look more like his daughter. (Turns out though it really is his daughter!)

If there’s any problem with Mafia: Operation Porno, it’s that too many characters and subplots are given sharp focus early on, only to disappear. For example Canello’s daughter-fixation. This is introduced early on, and is such a bizarre moment that the reader can’t help but want to read more about it. However it’s ignored until veritably the final page. Same for other tidbits throughout the narrative, like Howie’s galpal Annette, who seems as if she’ll be important to the story, but also disappears, only showing up again in that doomed Hotpants Henrietta shoot, where the authors off-handedly inform us that Annette has taken over Helga’s mantle as the “queen of the pornos.”

However, this is just a minor complaint. Otherwise the novel’s an excellent trawl through ‘70s trash and sleaze that doesn’t hold back on the graphic nature. The sporadic scenes of violence are very bloodthirsty, and the sex scenes are just as exploitatively detailed. The authors have a gift for doling out sleazy and memorable characters, and they capably bring to life the lurid underbelly of Hollywood. I’ll certainly read their other two contributions to the series, Operation: Cocaine and Operation: Hit Man.

The authors were an interesting pair of guys: Robert Turner was a prolific pulp writer, and seems to have churned out many stories and novels before his death in 1980. Allan Nixon, who died in 1995, also published many paperback originals, from the lurid private eye series Garrity to a handful of trashy Harold Robbins-esque potboilers in the late ‘60s, one of which I have and will definitely read: the wonderfully-titled The Bitch Goddess, from 1969. Nixon was also an actor in the ‘50s and ‘60s, starring in B-movies like 1960’s Prehistoric Women.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Death Merchant #30: The Shambhala Strike

Death Merchant #30: The Shambhala Strike, by Joseph Rosenberger
October, 1978  Pinnacle Books

Wrapping up the “ancient aliens” trilogy that began in Hell In Hindu Land and continued in The Pole Star Secret, The Shambhala Strike turns out to be an okay entry in the Death Merchant series, one that takes it straight into the realm of science fiction. Here Joseph Rosenberger manages to combine his interest in mysticism, overly-described exotic locations (and its people’s customs), and endlessly-detailed firefights. Oh, and Camellion teams up with an ancient alien!

Having traveled to Bhutan, thirty miles from the Tibetan border, we meet Richard “Death Merchant” Camellion as he is once again leading a party of CIA agents and army commandos. Heading up “Operation Arrowhead,” in which the CIA has decided to look into the mystery of Agharta, the so-called underworld empire of myth, Camellion commands a group of redshirts, among them Vallie West, a Schwarzenegger-sized CIA commando who apparently has fought beside Camellion before. Believe it or not, there’s even a girl in the group, certainly a rarity for Rosenberger: Helena Banya, a gorgeous blonde Russian “sex-spy” who has recently defected to the West.

As usual Rosenberger shoehorns all kinds of exposition into the proceedings, but when it comes to detailing the “sexpionage” efforts of the USSR, who can complain? As Camellion broods over Helena, who of course he doesn’t trust, he thinks to himself for pages and pages how these Russian sex-spies are taught to use their bodies in various ways. Helena’s story has it that when she defected, she brought along a folder of classified Russian intel so as to prove her honesty; among the paperwork was material on how the Russians recently tried to find Shambhala, supposedly the gate to Agharta.

Since the Soviets are trying to find the place, then America wants in on it too, thus Camellion has been hired to venture into the treacherous Himalayas. He leads a party into the mountains, and once again Rosenberger serves up too many characters who run together, from an anthropologist turned CIA contractor named Paul Gemz to a handful of Bhutanese soldiers who do nothing but quake in superstitious fear throughout the novel. There are also a handful of Black Berets, humorously enough led by a dude named “Red,” which isn’t confusing at all.

Making an appearance here is the rampant footnoting the series was at times known for; The Shambhala Strike is stuffed to the gills with paragraphs of footnotes, most of them absurdly unnecessary. Rosenberger takes a page from John Rossmann, with characters discussing semantics in outright exposition, with Rosenberger often backing up their claims with footnotes. But it’s all so stupid and shoehorned in. For example, at one point while setting up their perimeter defenses in the mountains, Camellion says they’ll at least be as safe as the average homeowner, and in a footnote Rosenberger actually gives statistics on how many housebreaks there are per year in the US!

Much worse though is the exposition. As in Hell In Hindu Land, the characters here will discuss metaphysics at the most preposterous of times, like right after firefights or even when meeting alien beings(!). You’ll have these army commandoes discussing esoteric lore in the baldest of exposition, with footnotes backing up everything they say. And like every other Rosenberger novel, The Shambhala Strike is too damn long, coming in at 208 pages of small type. If Pinnacle had just gutted the expository stuff and removed the footnotes, they would’ve been left with a leaner novel that would’ve been more in keeping with their other action paperbacks.

The first half of the book is pretty trying, very much in the adventure fiction mold, as Camellion and team trek across the Himalayas and Rosenberger footnotes all kinds of uninteresting shit. In fact, the reader isn’t even prepared for the fact that The Shambhala Strike is tied in to those earlier two novels, as Camellion isn’t even here looking for any aliens. He just wants to get to the bottom of the Shambhala mystery, and more importantly wants to get there before the Chinese do. Cue lots of tension as the small party knows they are being followed by Chinese soldiers, just waiting for the hammer to drop.

The action scenes here, for the most part, aren’t written in the same wearying style typical of Rosenberger. They’re more like something out of a war novel, with Camellion laying explosives and blowing up his pursuers, rather than endlessly-detailed gunfights. Once the “riceballs” are out of the way, Camellion makes it into Shambhala, which turns out to be a massive city beneath the earth, the group traversing down miles of tunnels to the place. Here the novel becomes full-on sci-fi, with ancient beings known as “Goros” speaking to Camellion et al telepathically, welcoming them into their underworld kingdom, complete with its “sun” of artificial light, which is just like the one Camellion saw in Thuleandia.

The Goros are humans, but ones who are 18,000 years old. They claim to have been residents of China, before even the Chinese lived there, and they were recruited by the Inelqu, the alien “grays” Camellion refers to as “Sandorians.” We get a long backstory here, complete with egregious exposition and footnotes, in which the Goros relate that millennia ago the Inelqu came to Earth from their planet in the Pleiades galaxy, turned the apes into humans, and eventually got into a holocaustal war with another race of aliens, these ones called the Flimmms, who came from an alternate reality!

Now the Inelqu slumber, having fought their war with the Flimmms to a draw. The Goros, who are cloned into new bodies every few hundred years, are tasked with watching over them. They’ve drawn Camellion and team into Shambhala because the Goros know that the Chinese are on the way, and Shambhala must be kept secret. Since the Goros are forbidden to harm anyone, they ask Camellion if he will fight off the Chinese, of which there are a mere 460!! Camellion, as blasé as ever, makes use of the Goros’s “flying doors,” ie high-tech flying contraptions created thousands and thousands of years before by the Inelqu.

One of the more perfunctory action scenes ensues as Camellion and Vallie West fly overtop the Chinese, who have gotten into the caves which lead to Shambhala, and just throw explosives down at them. But still there are a hundred or so Chinese soldiers eft, and they have tanks – however conveniently enough, all mechanical and electronic gear is negated by the energy field which pulses around Shambhala’s massive dome. Camellion’s team is forced to retreat back into the underworld, where the Death Merchant insists that they wake one of the aliens, something the Goros have said they can only do in “emergencies.”

Here follows a scene that you’d never expect in the world of men’s adventure, as the Goros wake up one of the little aliens, who engages in several pages of expository dialog with Camellion and crew! The alien goes into further detail on the story the Goros told, blithely informing the humans that they were created by the Inelqu. Comically enough, Rosenberger has Camellion and the others seeing all kinds of religious allusions in what the alien says, like when it mentions that the Flimmm’s massive spaceship crashed to Earth, Camellion quotes a line from the Bible about Lucifer’s falling star. In other words, the catastrophic war between the Inelqu and the Flimmm gave us humans all of our myths, and Camellion further informs us that the Inelqu are the Nephilim of the Old Testament.

So, one thing you can’t say about The Shambhala Strike is that it short-shrifts on the “ancient aliens” angle, like The Pole Star Secret did. But then, given the endless exposition and stupid questions and “insights” from Camellion et al, you kind of wish Rosenberger had kept a little mystery to it. But after lots of talk, the alien (one of a hundred sleeping in Shambhala, but woken by the Goros because it was the one in control of the weapons) hands over a few laserguns, stating that it cannot take life and thus Camellion and team must do so.

The novel’s climatic action scene is more typical of Rosenberger’s work, with lots of excessive description and POV-hopping and redshirts getting killed as Rosenberger documents their name and where they’re from and other extranneous details. The laserguns decimate everything in their path, but still it comes down to regular gunplay, with Camellion wielding dual autoloading .44s. By battle’s end only he and a few of his party survive, among them Vallie West and Helena Banya, who you won’t be surprised to know just disappears in the second half of the novel and has no relevance to the plot. In fact you wonder why Rosenberger even created her in the first place. Oh, that’s right – to fill pages.

Now, you’d think an alien being just awoken from an 18,000-year slumber, who told you that his people created your ancestors, would perhaps rattle your worldview a little. But not the Death Merchant, who basically just says, “Well, that’s that,” and leads his surviving party out of Shambhala, which closes off forever behind them. And hell, Camellion’s already thinking about his next mission, which might take place in…North Korea!!! Obviously, such a mission would appear mundane to the average person, after he or she had just met an alien and seen a fantastical underworld kingdom, but not blank-slate Camellion.

While many installments broached sci-fi topics, I think this is the most out-there the Death Merchant series ever got. It’s basically an overly-long trawl in “ancient alien” theory, with lots of egregious detail about this and that tossed in for good measure. In other words, it’s about what you’d expect from Rosenberger, who is the only writer who could have his hero meet ancient aliens and not bat an eye. There is a cool unexplained bit, though, where the Goros telepathically tell Camellion they know he serves “the Lord of Light” and is protected by him.

As I read The Shambhala Strike I kept wishing that Rosenberger was still around; maybe we’d see him as one of the talking heads on History Channel’s super-stoopid Ancient Aliens show.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Massage Parlor

Massage Parlor, by Jennifer Sills
January, 1973  Ace Books

A ‘70s sleaze “true story” that sold millions of copies, Massage Parlor is an obvious cash-in on Xaviera Hollander’s trendsetting The Happy Hooker. Like that book this Ace PBO purports to tell the tale of a sex-loving gal who comes to big-city New York and finds fame and fortune establishing her own massage parlor.

Copyright Ace, the book is credited to Jennifer Sills, who informs us in the opening pages that this is just her working name. However, Sills was actually the pseudonym of a prolific ‘70s writer named Stephen Lewis. Ironically, Ace didn’t do much to hide the secret – a 1973 Ace publication from Lewis (Sex Among The Singles) openly proclaims him as “the author of Massage Parlor” on the cover. But the ruse apparently worked, as what few online comments you can find today are from people who long assumed that “Jennifer Sills” was a real person.

And to tell the truth, Lewis easily fools the reader into thinking that this is the legitimate account of a brothel worker. The voice he uses for Sills sounds just right, of a wide-eyed young woman who doesn’t have a mean bone in her body (so to speak), who fully and openly embraces the sexual revolution (so to speak). The novel is mostly made up of anecdotes and sort of “case histories” of the men (and few women) our narrator has had sex with during the course of her career. And “she” gets quite graphic in her descriptions, so here once again we have that strange conundrum where a male author writes the first-person POV of a female character who explicity describes her sex life.

There really isn’t much of a plot to Massage Parlor, although it opens with the makings of one, as Jennifer is arrested by a “john” just as he’s about to have sex with her. Turns out it’s a raid on the massage parlor in which she works, the Pleasure Palace in the Midtown district of New York, and the john is an undercover vice squad cop who has waited until the second before inserting himself into Sill’s eager body to jump up and tell her she’s under arrest!

Our girl though is able to talk herself out of it…and the cop, Tom, likes her so much that he gets her out of the parlor before the rest of the cops can get there. To pay him for his kindness she takes him back to her apartment for a freebie! This opening makes one think the story will follow from here, and while it does, it takes about a hundred pages to get back to this point. Instead Jennifer tells us about herself and how she got into the business – a wanna-be actress from Chicago, she found herself surrounded by thousands of other wanna-bes in New York, and eventually in desperate need of cash she answered an ad in the classifieds and became a masseuse at the Pleasure Palace.

Lewis doesn’t really bring to life sleazy ‘70s Times Square, like Len Levinson did so capably in Without Mercy, and truth to tell, beyond the general sleazy vibe, there aren’t many topical details to be found in Massage Parlor. In fact we don’t even get a description of what the Pleasure Palace looks like, though you’d expect it would be pretty grimy, given its location and the era. And also per Len’s comments on that time and place, the women to be found in those parlors were a pretty rough-looking bunch, but Jennifer Sills you won’t be surprised to know is a gorgeous and stacked blonde.

Our narrator blithely recounts her many, many sexual experiences in the Pleasure Palace, dealing with all manner of men, from “regular johns” who just want regular sex, to “freaks” who request all sorts of wacky shit. We also learn the many dollar-making schemes of NYC massage parlors, circa 1972, courtesy Dom, Jennifer’s mafia-aligned boss. We go from random “off the top of my head” reminisces, hopscotching around from Jennifer’s brief trip to Vegas as the personal masseuse for a mafia don, to her first day in the Pleasure Palace, where her first client (who of course was a good looking stud) took her through the ropes, telling Jennifer when she should ask him for money and etc.

Each chapter is basically a sex scene, as Jennifer tells us about some john who comes in for a rub, a blowjob, some sex, or whatnot, and the merriment that ensues. Along the way she gets hit on by another masseuse (Jennifer waiting until after the girl has gone down on her to inform her that she’s just not into the lesbian scene!), gets tips on how to invest her money, buys a new apartment due to her new wealth, and eventually decides to go solo, once the Pleasure Palace has been busted and shut down.

In what comes off today as hilariously unsafe, Jennifer starts putting ads in the classifieds and, after a mere phone call, will go to the homes of strangers to have sex with them! Yet it is presented as a super-smart business move, and fun to boot! When placing the ad she meets another masseuse, this one a guy: Tony, an “Italian stud” who also works solo and does both men and women (literally). In another element that comes off as hilariously unsafe today, Tony has unprotected sex with both genders on the job, yet he and Jennifer immediately hit it off and start their own thing. Tony also introduces her to amyl nitrate poppers, which they snort during one of the book’s most descriptive sex scenes. 

Eventually Jennifer, Tony, and Jennifer’s co-worker pal Darlene decide to start their own place, mostly thanks to vice squad cop Tom, who re-enters the picture and tells Jennifer he’s crazy about her. He also warns her how unsafe her classifieds ad is, telling her about a recent case in which an independent masseuse was murdered. Hence, a posh parlor in a better area would be safer. Not only that, but Tom offers to help fund the place!! So Jennifer finds a ritzy 6-bedroom penthouse on the East Side, which costs a bundle, and opens business as “Massagarama,” which I assume is intended to be read as “massage-a-rama,” but instead looks like the name of some Indian dude.

Advertising to a select clientele at much higher rates, Jennifer is able to rake in the cash. She hires a few more attractive women, with Tony helming the front desk and catering to whatever women (or bi-curious men) might happen to come in. (Jennifer also informs us that she and Tony are now “just friends,” due to her hot and heavy romance with Tom, whom she loves…) Jennifer herself is advertised as the parlor’s elite masseuse, and clients must inquire for her prices and availability.

Here Lewis delivers another long sex scene, even in the novel’s home stretch, as a Canadian hockey team comes in and Jennifer handles three guys at once! I should mention that Lewis doesn’t skimp on the descriptions, and Massage Parlor is not one of those novels that clouds its explicitness in metaphors and analogies. After this we get a last-minute plotline in which a few hoods try to extort Jennifer, but after a call to her handy cop boyfriend she sets up a sting which ends with the hoods arrested and Jennifer considered a hero for her efforts!

Suprisingly enough, this was actually the start of a veritable trilogy. The following year saw the publication of the unimaginatively-titled Massage Parlor, Part II, also from Ace, and in 1976 there was Jennifer’s Boys, from Fawcett Crest – given the publisher switch-up, I’m guessing the sales must’ve dried up. I’ve got them all, though, and look forward to continuing the adventures of “Jennifer Sills.”

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Penetrator #20: The Radiation Hit

The Penetrator #20: The Radiation Hit, by Lionel Derrick
May, 1977  Pinnacle Books

I think it’s time I took a long hard look in the mirror and realized that I’ve now read twenty volumes of The Penetrator. And by god I’ll keep on reading them until the bitter end. But man, this one, courtesy Chet Cunningham, is bland and listless for the most part – for whatever reason, Cunningham has been floundering in his past few contributions to the series, and I still think it’s because Pinnacle asked him to soften the edges of his psychotic Mark "Penetrator" Hardin.

The Radiation Hit capitalizes on so many mid-‘70s fads that it almost comes off like it was put together by a marketing department. The Smoky And The Bandit craze must’ve been in full force as Cunningham penned this volume, with all of the CB radio mania that ensued; you can just imagine “Convoy” blaring in the background. (Some of my earliest memories were of the CB craze, and given that I grew up on the West Virginia/Maryland border, you can just imagine how popular it was there in hicksville.)

The plot – and Cunningham, unlike his series co-writer Mark Roberts, never bothers to ground his installments in any sort of continuity – has Hardin in Colorado, where he’s chasing down leads in a possible nuclear factory assault. Another indication of how many books of the Penetrator I’ve read is that I started to experience déjà vu during The Radiation Hit; it’s very similar to an earlier Cunningham installment: #10: The Hellbomb Flight. Just as in that novel, this time Hardin’s up against scientists who have gone rogue due to their fears that technology will be used for the wrong purposes.

Cunningham is in fact more concerned with doling out CB lingo (the back of the book even features a handy CB glossary) and writing about big rigs than delivering a Penetrator novel, as Hardin scopes out a nuclear facility and gradually deduces that the terrorists, whoever they are, will try to steal the highly-radioactive nuclear reactor fueling rods in a tractor trailer. Meanwhile Hardin (somehow) has gotten information from an insider, a scientist named Dr. Richard Banscomb who is one of a trio of nuclear scientists who have quit the facility due to its unsafe practices, and gone public with it.

But as mentioned, the CB phenomenon and truck drivers are given so much focus that Hardin doesn’t even see any action for the first hundred pages, other than a few soft probes of a facility where he knocks out a guard or two with his sleep darts. The Penetrator isn’t really that bright this time out, either, easily falling for a trap set up for him when later he goes back to the same facility and steals the rig in which he thinks the stolen fuel rods have been stashed. Only later does he discover that he’s been duped with a duplicate rig.

Part of the reason for the minimal violence in the first half of the novel is that the villains themselves aren’t a bloodthirsty lot; instead, they’re a team of nuclear scientists who want to alert the world of the dangers of nuclear power. More topical ‘70s material is presented with reams of “dangers of radiation” articles Hardin reads as part of his research, all of it straight out of Silkwood. We gradually learn that these scientists have arranged the heist of the nuclear reactor fuel rods so as to use them to pollute a large flock of sheep with radiation, so the media and thus the world can see how dangerous uncontrolled nuclear power could be. 

Some of the lurid goofiness of earlier Cunningham installments returns with the appearance of Lisa Golden, wife of one of the rogue scientists; Hardin visits the notoriously-promiscuous young lady, posing as a reporter, and she immediately strips down and asks him to tie her up for a little S&M. This is actually yet another callback to The Hellbomb Flight, where Hardin was similarly propositioned out of the blue by yet another sex-starved woman, but Lisa doesn’t immediately drop out of the narrative. In fact she becomes the novel’s main villain, a bloodthirsty, dopesmoking, sex-crazed radical, and not until she becomes so does the book become enjoyable.

Lisa, seducing her elderly husband, convinces him to allow her to go on the late-night run in which the big rig will deliver the fuel rods to the farmland where the scientists will unleash their plan. But Lisa has her own plan – she gets the young co-driver to leave the rig with promises of sex, but instead leads him into a trap where her hippie-terrorist comrades use the poor bastard for knife-throwing practice! The other poor driver Lisa shoots several times in the head with her .25. After which she and her friends make off with the rig, smoke a few joints, and let Lisa’s jiggling breasts decide which turns to take on the road!

Now, well over a hundred pages in, we have the makings of a Penetrator novel. Lisa’s hippie terrorist comrades plan to blow up the trailer in some desolate patch of Colorado, killing all of the locals. They will then use this mass murder to inform the world of how dangerous radiation is. They send out CB messages to the media, informing them of their plans and making demands, however Lisa tells her followers that they will blow up the fuel rods and kill the populace regardless if their demands are met or not.

But as it turns out, Lisa’s followers are more “hippie” than “terrorist,” and Hardin so outmatches them that it’s not even funny. Instead of building toward an action-packed climax, Cunningham instead has Hardin sort of just drive around rural Colorado, trying to luck into wherever the trailer has been hijacked to – there’s a laughable bit here where Hardin tells himself there’s “no time” to involve the Feds, as by the time they got in gear the radiation would already be let loose. As if the government wouldn’t hurry through red tape in emergency situations.

But of course Hardin locates the area, not far from Colorado Springs, and deduces that the rig is hidden in a barn outside of a remote farm. He plays a cat-and-mouse game with the hippies which proves to be the novel’s climatic sequence, just walking around in the dark and looking inside the house, slowly drawing them out. One of them proves to be Hardin’s first kill in the novel (like 130 pages in!), and Cunningham makes you feel sorry for the poor bastard, who lies at Hardin’s feet and calls for his mother as he dies. Meanwhile Lisa, who has morphed into a guerrilla general or something, orders her minions about and threatens to shoot “cowards.”

The finale is very anticlimatic, with the hippies trying to wire the trailer to blow on the farm and escape. Even here Hardin doesn’t kill anyone, but instead plays on their nerves. He’s secretly dismantled the trailer from blowing, but the hippies don’t know it, and they think they only have minutes to get out of there. When the final confrontation between Hardin and Lisa comes, she instead proves her own undoing, accidentally ramming her getaway van into the trailer. Dazed from a concussion, she climbs into the rig, exposing herself to the massive doses of radiation and dying in seconds – and even here Cunningham makes you feel sorry for her, despite the fact that she’s a cold-blooded murderer who planned to kill off an entire town. 

And that’s that. Hardin calls Joanna Tabler, unseen this volume, and asks her if she’d like to spend a few weeks with him in Colorado Springs.  She says she can’t, so Hardin figures he’ll spend some time here alone fishing! It’s just a listless end for what is for the most part a listless volume of The Penetrator, Cunningham obviously enamored with the CB scene and doing his best to shoehorn his enthusiasm into what is a very underwhelming and passable installment.