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 clich√©d 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.


Jack Badelaire said...

Pretty interesting series. Certainly a far cry from something like BRONSON: Blind Rage. I'll add this to my wish list for eventual reading.

Zwolf said...

I read this one recently (and, yep, that's the Revenger I was talking about, although I have read a Stark book before). I was underwhelmed. It's a little more realistic than most since the attacks are kept to a minimum and Ben only hits when it's safe to do so, but it does make the story drag. I'd've sacrificed some realism for another dozen kills or so. Also, our hero is a stubborn ass who makes a lot of his own problems.

Messmann's style isn't bad but there's something off-putting about it. I tried reading another book of his, The Deadly Deep, one of those "critter" horror novels where nature revolts against mankind. It wasn't terrible, but I didn't finish it. I'll probably try it again at some point, but somehow I didn't get into it, even though people were getting attacked by all manner of sea life.