Thursday, July 31, 2014


Cabby, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1980  Belmont-Tower Books

Predating his work on The Sharpshooter (and even the porn novel he wrote as “March Hastings”), Cabby was one of the first novels Len Levinson ever wrote. However despite being written in 1972, the novel went unpublished until 1980. Len has often mentioned this book to me, saying that it was his stab at literary greatness; he also told me he really was working as a cabbie at the time, driving at night and writing during the day.

Cabby is narrated by our protagonist, Arnold Shumsky, who like Alexander Frapkin leaves no detail spared as he tells us about his sleazy life. Shumsky though is a lot more withdrawn than fun-loving Frapkin, to the point where he’s very distant from the reader. In fact, Shumsky is almost a ghost in his own novel, very rarely interracting with those around him or telling us anything about himself or his past. This obviously is part of Len’s theme with the novel, but ultimately it makes for a sometimes-frustrating read, as you’d like to get to know more about the guy.

But from what can be gleaned between the lines, Shumsky was, like Len himself, once a public relations man who worked in Manhattan but whose life took a sudden tumble, ending up with Shumsky divorced, estranged from his young daughter, and living as a shell of his former self, driving a cab through the slums of ‘70s NYC. This is of course all mirrored in Len’s own life, though it’s safe to say without the bitterness or setbacks of Shumsky’s story; when I spoke to him the other year, Len repeated several times that he had “no regrets” that he’d quit his corporate life to become a fulltime writer.

If the novel lacks much of a plot or characterization, it more than makes up for it with Len’s usual knack for capturing ‘70s New York. Cabby almost acts like a guidebook, with Shumsky detailing which streets he uses to get around Manhattan and environs, telling us of the people and places there. We also get a good cross-section of the type of people who lived in NYC at the time, though again our narrator rarely interracts with them.

The closest things to a recurring plot in Cabby would be the on-again, off-again strike his local cabbie union throws, usually incited by a politcally-active driver named Rubino who is called “the Communist.” We get to meet a few of the other cabbies who work with Shumsky, from Gasoline Louie, a legendary cabbie who lives in his car, to The Eel, to Fishface, the dispatcher. Gasoline Louie is the only one who could be considered friends with Shumsky, coming over to use our protagonist’s bath every once in a while.

Shumsky drives his passengers around, seldom engaging them in conversation. When he does interract with them it usually leads to trouble. In one early incident he’s in a wreck with an aggressive driver; this leads to an entertaining sequence in which Shumsky is hassled by a shady lawyer named Herman Schmeck into suing the other driver, complete with trips to a quack chiropractor named Dr. Irving Ginsberg, who puts Shumsky in more pain than the wreck itself.

Another incident later in the novel has Shumsky held at gunpoint by a black passenger, who tells Shumsky he’s going to kill him. Instead he pistol whips him and takes his wallet. Later on Shumsky is reticent to drive another passenger into Harlem – we learn most cabbies are – and there’s a well-written part where the passenger, a soul singer, tells him she forgot her purse and asks Shumsky to come up to her apartment with her; Shumsky’s afraid he’s about to be killed, but the lady turns out to be on the level.

Speaking of ladies, Shumsky is also like Alexander Frapkin in that he takes part in the novel’s sex scenes all by himself. Shumsky is even sleazier than Frapkin, as we learn that he sometimes masturbates, while driving, when he gets a pretty passenger. Len writes a few fantasy sequences in which we get a peak into Shumsky’s imagination, as in one part he fantasizes himself as a knight about to ravish his gorgeous passenger, who appears in his fantasy as a damsel in distress. It all gets pretty XXX-rated, ending by veering back into reality, where we find Shumsky having finished playing with himself and dropping off the passenger without ever even speaking to her.

The biggest difference between Cabby and Len’s later novels is that here he really brings on the “literary” stuff, with themes and allusions and metaphors weaved into the novel, sometimes overbearingly so, particularly Shumsky’s penchant for thinking of himself as a Catholic saint, struggling and toiling for salvation. There are many sequences which almost go into stream-of-consciousness, as Len brings these blood-soaked fantasies to life, with Shumsky seeing Jesus bleeding on the cross in Times Square and etc. It gets to be a bit much at times, however the writing itself is good, and it's interesting to see a different side of Len's style.

Ultimately the main problem with Cabby is that there isn’t enough there to make it emotionally resonate with the reader. Sure, we realize Shumsky is going through a rough patch, hence how he has so completely shut himself off, but still – if we’re to empathize with the guy, we should get more of a peek into his soul. I hate the term “emotional connection,” which is bandied about in the world of marketing and is pretty much all modern advertisers strive for in their maudlin and sappy commercials, but still – there’s no emotional connection with Shumsky, hence his self-pity comes off as annoying.

Not that there are no flashes of enjoyment in the novel. For one I was happy to see that, even in his first novel, Len was serving up unusual and memorable supporting characters, not to mention his knack for featuring the same characters in different novels; Shumsky at one point is shocked when his old boss from the PR firm gets in his cab, and it’s none other than Larry Walters from Hype!. (And Shumsky himself made a cameo in The Bar Studs – yet he was more memorable in those few pages than he is in the entirety of Cabby.)

After reading Cabby, I asked Len what his thoughts were on the novel. I was surprised to see that he felt much the same about it as I had:

Cabby was supposed to be my breakthrough novel. I actually thought it would propel me to widespread critical acclaim and lots of money, possibly even a movie deal.

First I should provide context. I quit my PR job in 1971 to become a writer. I then wrote a novel which took about a year, and got rejected everywhere. I was running out of money and needed a part-time job that would permit me to continue writing.

So I became a cabdriver on the cruel streets of New York City back when cabdrivers were murdered fairly regularly. Some drove during the day because they couldn’t handle the dangers of the night. Others drove during the night because they couldn’t handle daytime traffic. I drove on the night shift for the Metropolitan Garage located in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, a ten minute walk from my apartment.

All sorts of people sat in the back seat of my taxicabs, from Wall Street brokers to prostitutes, movie stars, working people, cops, criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, even my former PR boss Lee Solters got into my cab one night, astonished to see me behind the wheel. While driving them around, I felt inspired to write a novel about a cabdriver who didn’t have all his marbles, and who in many (but not all) ways was me.

I drove on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays nights. My shifts began at 4pm and ended at 4am. When I wasn’t driving, I was home writing the novel that became Cabby. I had virtually no social life during this period and sank into a very strange, isolated frame of mind which became reflected in the novel.

When Joe Kenney asked me to write something about Cabby, I thought I should reread it, because I hadn’t read it for around 42 years, and still remembered it as The Great American Taxicab Novel.

I read it yesterday morning (6/24/2014)and soon came to the demoralizing realization that it wasn’t The Great American Taxicab Novel, and in fact is a very flawed novel written before I started writing action/adventure books for Belmont-Tower, before I came under the tutelage of the great Peter McCurtin, and before I understood the art of storytelling.

Cabby really isn’t a story. It’s mostly a series of cab rides interspersed with episodes in the life of a semi-psychotic cabdriver who’d been traumatized by the break-up of his marriage, as I was still traumatized by the break-up of mine. It has lots of authentic early 1970s color and some interesting scenes but overall doesn’t have narrative tension, which detracts from readability. Cabby was written before Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro was released in 1976, yet certain curious similarities can be found between the movie and my novel.

Cabby was published in 1980, so the screenwriter Paul Schrader couldn’t have read it. And I hadn’t seen Taxi Driver before I wrote Cabby. But Schrader and I approached cab driving somewhat similarly. It’s almost enough to make one believe in Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious.

There are two hard-core pornographic sequences in Cabby, which I found embarrassing to read yesterday, although I suppose there’s truth in them somewhere. Men really do go crazy over women and have grotesque sexual fantasies. Those two sequences were kind of disgusting, from my viewpoint at age 79. Human sexuality is very different at age 37 compared with age 79. I must’ve been a very strange person back in 1972.

Finally I finished Cabby and delivered it to my then literary agent, Elaine Markson. I was very proud of it, and considered myself the next Henry Miller or a variation on Charles Bukowski. Elaine actually liked it and submitted it to major publishers. An editor at Little, Brown wanted to publish it as a hardcover. I don’t remember this editor’s name; she was Chinese or Japanese, and took me to lunch at a fancy mid-Manhattan restaurant where she said Cabby was an outstanding, original novel. Unfortunately, her supervisors at Little, Brown didn’t agree, and rejected the novel. Subsequently it was rejected by numerous other publishers.

After writing Cabby, I desperately wanted to escape cabdriving. Finally I hit on the plan of writing a hardcore pornographic novel, which became Private Sessions by March Hastings, published by Midwood, a subsidiary of Belmont Tower. That led to writing action-adventure novels for BT, where my first editor was Peter McCurtin, who taught me many lessons about storytelling. Finally my so-called literary career took off and I didn’t need to drive a cab anymore. BT even published Cabby which I dedicated it to Milburn Smith, who succeeded Peter as my editor.

Cabby was an attempt by a neophyte to write a complex literary novel, but didn’t quite succeed, I don’t think. I can’t recommend this novel, but writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. We can be too critical or not critical enough. I haven’t read Joe’s review yet, and am very curious about his opinion.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Revenger #2: Fire In The Streets

The Revenger #2: Fire In The Streets, by Jon Messmann
June, 1974  Signet Books

A year after the events of The Revenger, mule-headed hero Ben Martin now lives as “Ben Markham” in Chicago, denying himself memories of his former life and just trying to earn a living as a manager at a meat-processing factory. Soon enough though he’s once again going up against the Mafia, in a novel that almost comes off like a Xerox copy of its predecessor.

Just as The Revenger opened with Ben discovering mobsters lurking around his shop, so too does Fire In The Streets, with the exception that this time Ben Martin himself has nothing to lose in the bargain. It’s not his store and it’s not his family that’s put in harm’s way due to his rash actions, all of which serves to make the reader eventually harbor ill-will against this “hero.” But anyway, just as in that previous installment, Ben mauls the intruders, hanging each of them on meathooks.

The stooges work for Nick Carboni, a Chicago capo who is in the middle of a “business arrangment” with Ben’s boss, Jordon Alwyn, owner of Alwyn’s Beef Products. But Ben Martin knows how the mob operates, and knows that even though they appear to be working on the level, eventually they will make life hell for the Alywyns. I forgot to mention, Ben also has the hots for Jordon’s sexy wife Valery (yes, the couple’s really named “Jordon” and “Valery”). Whereas the previous novel traded on marriage, this one’s theme is all about infidelity, with Carboni constantly fighting with his wife and running off to his blonde mistress, Julie Egan, and Jordon and Valery fighting endlessly.

Also, Messmann takes a page from Tony DeStefano, who wrote himself out of a similar corner in Mondo #2; just like the protagonist of that series, Ben Martin clearly seemed to die in the final page of The Revenger. So for this sequel, just as DeStefano did in his own sequel, Messmann tones down the seriousness of Ben’s wounds in the previous book, having it that he was “only” shot three times in the abdomen. In a brief flashback we learn that he was fished out of the Hudson by a slightly-chubby nurse who secretly took Ben back to her apartment and tended him back to life.

Despite the expected romance (and again Messmann delivers several explicit sex scenes throughout the novel), Ben insisted he had to leave New York, and eventually came to Chicago, where he now works as a manager in an establishment similar to the one he once ran in New York. But the Mafia is here as well, and as in the previous novel Ben continues to indulge in his “obsession” with fighting them, no matter how much trouble or misery he causes for those close to him.

To wit, he refuses to back down when Jordon Alwyn confronts him about that fight in the opening pages, as a result driving a further wedge between Jordon and Valery, as Mrs. Alwyn appears to harbor certain feelings for Ben as well. She also owns sixty percent of the company, which serves for further strain for the couple. Anyway, returning home one night Ben’s ambushed by three mobsters, and ends up killing all of them, which really sets off Carboni, who demands that Alwyn fire him immediately.

Instead of packing his bags and leaving, Ben instead takes over for a close friend who also works at the company and was scheduled to drive a rig across state; Ben is certain the mobsters will try to hijack or at least wreck the rig, as a sign of its displeasure with Alwyn (again, displeasure over events Ben himself has caused). And he’s right; a car comes after him, guns blazing, and Ben ends up crashing the truck right overtop it, easly jumping out of his crashing rig without a scratch.

Now it’s war, and Ben realizes he must once again become the Revenger (not that he ever calls himself this). Meantime he has sex with Valery, who comes over to throw herself on him. Given that Ben was just fired, this makes for some pretty fitting payback, screwing the boss’s hot wife. At any rate he again does exactly as in the previous book, renting out some anonymous slums downtown and buying a few handguns and rifles from stores. Once again our protagonist doesn’t resort to fancy weaponry, expressly avoiding automatics so as not to “harm the innocent” – as if he doesn’t harm them enough on his own! I mean, would you be surprised to learn that his good friend, the one who was supposed to drive that rig, is eventually murdered by Carboni’s thugs??

One thing that elevates Fire In The Streets above The Revenger is that here there is much less pathos; whereas in the previous book Ben Martin took quite a while to become once again the killing machine he was in ‘Nam, here he’s ready posthaste to kick some shit. This adds a fun layer to the novel, with Ben marveling over how “easy” it is to kill Carboni’s stupid goons, and Martin later calling the man himself to promise him he’ll die soon, too. But again, Ben comes off as the sick one, as this is not his fight, and indeed Jordon Alwyn is presented as such a spineless sap that you feel little sympathy for him anyway. Clearly, Ben’s unwillingness to back down causes more misery for Alwyn’s employees and family than anything Carboni might have planned.

As in the previous book Ben pulls off a series of daring public hits, first blowing away some Carboni thugs as they come out of an Italian restaurant. Then he gets more when some of them come to round up blonde bimbo Julie Egan, a scene which has Ben gunning each of them down as they stand beside the screaming girl, whom he lets live. Meantime Ben keeps on banging Mrs. Alwyn, who is already planning a future with Ben Martin – plus she’s figured out who he really is, having followed the newspaper stories a year before and easily piecing it together that “Ben Markham” and Ben Martin are one and the same.

Another figure from Ben’s past returns: Don Gennosanti, the elderly New York capo who tried to make peace with Ben in the first book. Gennosanti calls Carboni, insisting that he is playing this all wrong, and also the Don is certain this is once again Ben Martin at work. Also by novel’s end we see that the Don has actually started to like Ben Martin (he even drinks a toast to him on the final page), so this will hopefully serve up for a subplot that continues in the next volumes.

There are actually fewer “action scenes” in Fire In The Streets than in the first book, with the highlight being a bit where Ben is actually caught in a lame Carboni trap. But Ben is prepared, with a pair of derringers strapped beneath his belt with rubber bands; the sequence is entertaining, especially because it’s the first time yet in the series that Ben himself is in danger, but it all comes off too easy for him because the mobsters once again make every mistake he expected they would.

Even the finale is short on thrills, with Ben stealing yet another rig and strapping a bunch of dynamite to it, then steering the thing for a head-on collision with Carboni’s fortified house. But Messmann relays the sequence from the perspective of Carboni and his wife; the woman, beaten by Carboni throughout the novel, has herself turned to Ben Martin’s side, and per the Revenger’s request she keeps Carboni “occupied” so he’ll be in the house at this particular time.

Given the lack of action and the preponderance of literary stuff, with lots and lots of soul-plumbing and introspection, it occurs to me that Jon Messmann was trying to write a “real” novel here, just as he did in the previous book. I just don’t think this style gibes well with the men’s adventure genre. In fact Messmann’s writing throughout is very reminiscent of Burt Hirschfeld, with the same sort of “serious” turns of phrase that veer right over the line into pretension.

Fire In The Streets comes in at a mere 135 pages, but it has some of the smallest print I’ve ever read in a novel. But even so, even despite the lack of action and the focus on introspection and word-painting, I still enjoyed the novel, and look forward to the next book, with “hero” Ben Martin already disappearing into the shadows on the final pages, ready to go someplace else and take on a new identity.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Ski Lodgers

The Ski Lodgers, by William Hegner
December, 1976  Pocket Books

Despite the unassuming title and cover hyperbole (“Hegner sales now over 1,000,000!”), The Ski Lodgers is one of the most lurid and outrageous trash novels I’ve ever read, William Hegner in the scant course of 175 pages graphically detailing everything from incest to bestiality, not to mention a whole bunch of regular sex. And he doesn’t even waste your time with a plot!

The novel details the sex-filled life of Stefan Zodiac, a 44 year-old ski instructor from Budapest (mistakenly listed as Austria on the back cover) who for the past several years has worked as the “skimeister” for the Inn of the Swallows resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. But Zodiac, who claims to have won the Silver medal in the Olympics, is more interested in bedding the gorgeous women who flock to the Inn. And the women are eager to bed with him, given his fame as a first-class stud, rushing up with him to his private lodge above the Inn.

Unlike The Worshipped And The Damned, Hegner this time out doesn’t bother with writing a regular sort of novel, with plot development or anything; instead he delivers what’s for the most part a novella, serving up elliptical chapters titled after each sign of the Zodiac, documenting in explicit detail Stefan Zodiac’s numerous affairs. Each of his conquests represents a Zodiac sign, though Hegner doesn’t do much with this theme, other than for example having Stefan say something like “You are the sign of the Ram,” to an Aries girl who’s blowing him, to which she’ll respond, “I’d like you to ram me.”

Zodiac has stayed here at the Inn for many years, hired long ago by Hattie Kroger, 60 year-old owner of the place. The only other recurring characters in the novel are Sidney “Balloon” Ballard, the Inn’s obese comic and the closest thing Zodiac has to a friend, and Eddie Banner, the Inn’s crafty PR man. But these characters ultimately have nothing to do with anything, and the “plot” moreso just concerns Zodiac’s steady stream of easy conquests, with him bedding everything from actresses to bisexual tennis pros to animal trainers to even a congresswoman.

It would be a waste of time to document all of them, as each woman is only in the book long enough to get introduced, exchange a few lines of dialog with Zodiac, and then go up to his private lodge to have sex with him. I imagine sex must’ve been easily come by in the liberated ‘70s, but The Ski Lodgers takes it to extremes – in some cases the women are propositioning Zodiac mere seconds after meeting him. The hardest he has to work for any of them is Jacqueline Monde, a journalist from Quebec who happens to write a piece on the Inn midway through the novel; Zodiac has her flown into the resort so he can meet her and, of course, screw her. And of course, she’s more than eager.

But just to list a few of them, first there’s Dina Lawrence, notable if for nothing else than being Zodiac’s first conquest in the book; Christina Rowe, a famous actress who speaks suspiciously like Katherine Hepburn (her memorable moment involves poking fun at Zodiac’s “I’m A Swallower” pins, which beyond having the double meaning for “The Inn of the Swallows” he awards to those women who, uh, live up to them – and Christina promptly earns one of her own); Belinda Drake, Zodiac’s “Libra” conquest who shares the same birthday as my wife (September 29th – Zodiac asks each woman the specific day and month they were born); and Nancy Frazier, the aforementioned congresswoman, who despite being here on a political junket is quick to run up with Zodiac to his lodge.

Special mention must be made of three of Zodiac’s conquests, for here in these sections we learn that bestselling fiction of the 1970s was a hell of a lot more outrageous than it is today. First there’s Bobbie Lee and Martha, a pair of tennis pros who go everywhere together. Zodiac of course ends up with them, screwing Bobbie Lee in his lodge, only for Martha to walk in on them…and pout that she wasn’t invited. This leads to a three-way during which Zodiac learns that the girls, of course, are lesbians (actually bisexuals, I guess)…and my friends, they get off on taking a piss on each other. Then they have Zodiac piss on them! Then they piss on Zodiac! Then they piss in each other’s mouths!!

Next up we get even more outrageous with the arrival of Jill Gibson, 15 year-old star of the TV show “Pepper Peabody;” she comes here with her mother, Kim, herself an actress. Zodiac and Kim hook up posthaste…and Kim promptly pimps out her daughter, informing Zodiac that the child is far more advanced sexually than her years would imply. There follows an unsettling sequence in which young Jill comes to Zodiac’s lodge and engages in all sorts of XXX-rated shenanigans while pretending to be even younger than she already is…a sequence that gets even more outrageous with the arrival of Jill’s mother, who promptly inserts herself into the scene! Now follows yet another three-way, this time with a mother and her teen daughter not only screwing Zodiac but each other, with Hegner delivering one of the grossest lines ever, as a nude Kim squats over her daughter and tells her, “Kiss where you came from.” 

But Hegner isn’t done yet. Shortly after this we have the arrival of Erica Glass, a very attractive young woman who works as an animal trainer. She comes to the Inn of the Swallows with a menagerie of animals for some event PR man Eddie Banner dreams up, and when she makes her inevitable trip up to Zodiac’s lodge she brings along her favorite of the animals, a chimp. While Zodiac’s banging her Erica casually informs Zodiac to take a look at the chimp: it’s masturbating as it watches them. Blithely informing Zodiac that the chimp is very interested in human sex, Erica disengages herself from him and splays herself out for the chimp – who promptly begins screwing her as a stunned Zodiac watches on. Later Erica informs Zodiac that she’s had sex with all kinds of animals, including snakes…!

Something occurred to me as I read The Ski Lodgers. With its increasingly outrageous sex scenes and increasingly-disassociated protagonist, I realized that a “second level” reading of the novel could easily have Hegner himself as Stefan Zodiac, with Zodiac’s increasing boredom and apathy a mirror of Hegner’s own boredom and apathy with trash fiction – the front of the book lists thirteen other novels by Hegner, all published in just a few short years. And just as Zodiac barrels through his women, so too does Hegner barrel through the sex scenes, their increasingly outrageous nature not only another sign of Hegner’s boredom but also perhaps his disgust with both himself and his readers – “You people want sex scenes? Well, that’s what you’ll get.”

Giving more credence to this is that Hegner doesn’t even seem to be sure when The Ski Lodgers takes place. It was published in late 1976 and seems to occur around this time, with talk of women’s liberation and mentions of Raquel Welch, and with characters who are, obviously, very liberated in their sex lives, with lots of dopesmoking going along with the rampant casual sex. Yet early in the book, immediately after informing us that Zodiac is 44, Hegner writes that Zodiac took part in the Olympics shortly before World War II, and it was the destruction of many of these official records in Budapest during the war that allowed him to lie about being a Silver medalist. This then would imply the novel occurs in the 1950s or early 1960s. So did Hegner just make a mistake or what?

To be sure, despite the focus on lurid sex and extreme imagery, Hegner is still a good writer – he has a definite penchant for doling out one-liners, like he’s the Shane Black of trash fiction. And as displayed in The Worshipped And The Damned he also has a gift for creating memorably-catty female characters, each of whom give as good as they get (in more ways than one).

Whether my thoughts on Hegner’s disgust with the genre and his readers is correct or not, it appears that after this he only published three more novels, with nothing published altogether between 1979 and 1999, when he returned to co-write Razzle Dazzle…with actress Stella Stevens!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Penetrator #21: The Supergun Mission

The Penetrator #21: The Supergun Mission, by Lionel Derrick
July, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Mark Penetrator Hardin once again heads down into Mexico, courtesy author Mark Roberts. Researching the “wetback situation” (as it’s constantly referred to throughout the book, as well as on the back cover), the Penetrator gradually becomes involved in a plot that involves an island kingdom outside of Dallas(!), a sonic raygun that melts people, and a billionaire villain.

Roberts’s previous installments were a lot of wild fun, particularly #17: Demented Empire. But with this volume the same sort of rot has set in upon his volumes as it has upon series co-writer Chet Cunningham's, whose previous few books have been snoozefests. But then, by this point both authors had each written 10 volumes of the series, so it had to be tough to maintain their interest levels. Especially given the rate of publication – I mean, it’s taken me four years just to read 21 volumes of The Penetrator.

For once we open with Hardin in his desert Stronghold, sipping pina coladas with Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle. Too little time is spent here with Hardin’s comrades; each installment usually opens with Hardin already out on a job and stays with him throughout. But with this volume Roberts actually has Hardin occasionally calling back to the Stronghold to get intel from Haskins. Anyway as per usual Hardin comes up with his own mission – he wants to look into the recent mass-murder of 25 “wetbacks” in California, the tractor-trailer they were hauled in having been burnt to a crisp while the Mexicans were riding in it.

Hardin goes down to Mexico and poses as a “coyotero,” ie a dude who smuggles Mexicans across the border. He meets a pair of Americans who really are coyoteros, flying their haul on old planes, and Hardin gets the shit knocked out of him in a surprise ambush moments after talking to the guys. For once in the series our hero is out for the count and could easily be killed, but he’s left alive, though well-stomped. Never fear, for a well-endowed young Mexican gal named Consuela happens along and takes him back to her place, tending to his wounds.

Consuela (or “Connie” as Hardin calls her) provides more info on the situation Hardin is here to research – turns out there is a particular group based outside of Dallas that is “hiring” all of the Mexicans in this area, promising them work and money in the US, but apparently just abducting them, as the men are never heard from again. Connie’s brother Raul happens to be one of the men missing. We learn via cutover that these men are taken to a muddy island called Dwyer’s that’s sprouted up in the midst of Lake Texoma, about a hundred miles from Dallas, Texas. Here evil billionaire Howard Christiansen is using the Mexicans as target practice, employing a sonic raygun on them.

For once Roberts skips the details when the expected Hardin/Connie lovin’ ensues. The Supergun Mission is pretty tame in both the sex and violence departments, with Hardin only getting in a few scuffles in the first hundred or so pages. In fact Roberts is more eager to, once again, dole out lots of inconsequential detail about how to fly small airplanes. Was the guy going for his pilot’s license or something? Because just as in previous Roberts installments we have long scenes of Hardin flying this or that private aircraft, with all manner of technical detail provided.

The first fight scene is one of the more unusual in the Penetrator annals. Hardin goes up to Dallas to try to get a job with the mysterious company that’s hiring the Mexicans, posing yet again as a pilot looking to fly cargo out of Mexico -- any cargo, as long as it isn’t drugs. Meanwhile a gang of street punks break into Hardin’s van (right across from Dealey Plaza!). Hardin, unarmed, comes upon the scene and beats the shit out of all of them. But the bizarre twist comes when the gang’s lookout shows up, jumping Hardin from behind, and Hardin slams him into a car – only seeing after the fact that the lookout’s just a ten year-old kid. Hardin takes the other prepubescent lookout over his knee and spanks him mercilessly!

Hardin gets the job as a pilot, and for a trial run hauls out a new shipment from Mexico. Here ensues a long airchase in which narcs come after Hardin when he crosses the US border, assuming he’s yet another drugrunner. We get all manner of detail on how to fly around in storms, using heavy cloud cover to hide from pursuing planes. But when Hardin finally makes it to the fortress on Dwyer’s Island, he is informed he cannot leave. Also, he discovers that Connie has snuck aboard his plane, disguising herself as a young boy, in the hopes of finding out what happened to her brother.

But it’s all just sort of plodding, with none of the bizarre or even sadistic flashes of previous books. Howard Christiansen’s storyline is also underdeveloped; we learn he’s developed the sonic gun to sell it to either the Red Chinese or the Cubans, despite not having any political ties himself, and to build the thing he’s adbucted beautiful Dr. Frances Graybar, who to her horror finds herself testing out the gun on “dead” Mexicans, the poor men reduced to puddles of goo beneath the sonic onslaught.

Things get slightly back on track in the final third, when Hardin, on another flight, pulls all sorts of aerodynamics to knock out his copilot, Sid, one of the coyoteros who beat him up back in Mexico. Hardin drugs him up with truth serum, discovers that Sid was one of the men who torched those 25 Mexicans in California, and hurls the bastard out of the plane! Now, finally, Hardin gears up for “a hard hit” on Christiansen’s island kingdom on Lake Texoma.

Only the final few pages show any life, as Hardin raids Dwyer’s Island, blowing away Christiansen’s goons with a shotgun and various sidearms. We also here have the subplot of Dr. Graybar forced against her will to test out the sonic gun on living subjects, who of course are none other than Connie and her brother Raul. It all leads up to a James Bond-type finale in which the villain is of course subjected to his own nefarious device. Roberts does leaven the sequence with gore, documenting each and every shotgun blast.

Once again we end with Hardin on a brief vacation, with the previously-bookish Dr. Graybar, who has, beer commercial style, doffed her thick glasses, let her blonde hair down, and unleashed her previously-subdued sex goddess nature. But then Professor Haskins buzzkills the fun with a call, telling Hardin that a friend of David Red Eagle’s needs help, and Hardin’s ready to leave asap.

Believe it or not, the next installment is one of the two volumes of The Penetrator that I don’t have (the other being #52), but I’m not too worried about it – the series has been faltering for the past few installments, and the plot of High Disaster doesn’t sound compelling enough to make me seek it out.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin (aka The Revenger #3)

Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin, by Joseph Hedges
February, 1975  Pyramid Books
(Original UK publication 1973)

The success of Don Pendleton's The Executioner was so widespread that Imitation Executioners began to pop up even overseas, this being one such example. Starting life in the UK as “The Revenger,” this series ran for thirteen volumes and documented British mob-buster John Stark’s war against “The Company,” ie the Syndicate-types who killed his girlfriend.

Pyramid Books brought the series over to the US (only reprinting the first six volumes), changing the title to Stark so as not to be confused with Jon Messmann’s Revenger series. Actually I think Stark is a better title, as it gives the series a Parker vibe – and perhaps author Terry Harknett (aka “Joseph Hedges”) was going for a Richard Stark feel in the first place, with an obvious reference in his protagonist’s last name but also because The Company is very much like Parker’s nemeses “The Outfit.”

Another change Pyramid made was to the covers, gracing them with pretty cool drawings of a shades-wearing Stark blasting various pistols. (The original UK editions featured disturbing photo covers of murdered topless women – and they say Americans are sick!!) Pyramid also changed the text to American-style double quotation marks for dialog (I’ve always suspected that the British single quotation mark was one of the things that lead to the Revolutionary War). Yet for some reason Pyramid failed to change the footnotes in the book. Occasionally an asterisk in the text will tell us to check out, say, “The Revenger: Funeral Rites”. In other words, in these footnotes Pyramid didn’t change “The Revenger” to “Stark,” which must’ve caused for some reader confusion.

Anyway, this third volume picks up immediately after the previous one, with Stark and a lithe redhead named Amanda escaping Company gunmen in Southern France. Apparently in that previous book Stark took out a Company bigwig here in France, and after a very bloody firefight in the opening pages of The Chinese Coffin he and Amanda capture a Cadillac and get away. Amanda must’ve only been introduced in that previous book, as we learn she just met Stark a few days ago, and was engaged to a Company man before Stark blew into town.

Harknett also wrote the Edge series (“Joseph Hedges” being that titular character’s full name, hence the in-joke of Harknett’s pseudonym for this series), which was known for its graphic violence. In this opening firefight Harknett proves that Stark will be much the same, with Stark doling out gory kills with a .357 Magnum and a .38 – like the best ‘70s crime fiction, the battles here are mostly fought with revolvers. Amanda even gets to take out one of the gunmen, shooting him in the back as she hides in a slime-filled swamp. Throughout the novel, there is lots of graphic detail about exploding heads and guts, and Harknett never shirks on the violence factor.

I’ve said before how I find most British pulp to be a little antiseptic, but Harknett doesn’t come off as prudish at all, delivering not only graphic gore but also some explicit sex scenes. In fact right after the gory firefight he proceeds directly to the sex, with Amanda showing off her oral skills for a lucky Stark. Amanda’s a pure ‘70s kind of gal, wearing a clinging tunic that even has a ring-pull zipper, and she gets off (so to speak) on Stark’s dangerous life. (Harknett also provides the incidental detail that Amanda is shall we say bare-shaven, which must’ve been really out of the norm in the early ‘70s; no wonder Harknett felt the need to mention it.)

Stark by the way is a grim kind of guy, very abrupt and always “on the job,” but occasionally he goes into “revenger mode” (just like Messmann’s protagonist, in fact!), where he’s even more deadly. My only problem with the character is that Harknett has him in his mid-twenties, which I think is much too young for a men’s adventure protagonist, especially one from the ‘70s – they should be square-jawed Marlboro Men types who are around thirty-five years old. We learn through the excessive detailing (more of which later) that Stark is also sporting a “bandito” moustache, apparently grown for the previous volume’s adventure, though he shaves it off midway through this one.

The Chinese Coffin operates more like a ‘70s crime novel than your typical men’s adventure offering, with a small cast of characters all converging in a convoluted plot. For as Stark and Amanda get a flight out of France courtesy a gay American friend of Amanda (cue lots of homophobia courtesy Stark, to the point where the reader thinks to himself “hmmm”), we are informed that a group of Chinese are also flying out of Tibet, making their slow way to Lebanon, where a company bigwig (strangely, Harknett never capitalizes “company,” so I’ll stop doing so as well) named Riachi is about to trade them a few million pounds worth of diamonds in exchange for uncut heroin.

Riachi is a pulpy villain, an obese lecher who lives in an ultramodern house in Lebanon where he caters to his every depraved whim. The head “executive” of the Middle East area of the company, Riachi apparently spends most of his time at play, in particular sampling the young virgins who are trained in company clinics to curse in multiple languages before being shipped to harems; Riachi takes them for a test run before sending them off to their various designations. At the moment he has a pair of Lebanese teens at his disposal, and Harknett serves up lots of lurid, exploitative stuff here, but still wrapped up in the overly-literary style of the series (and British pulp in general).

In addition to Riachi there’s Fairborne, an American company man who is bringing in the diamonds. For reasons unknown he stops off in Majorca on his way to Lebanon, where he bumps uglies with the wonderfully-named Kiki Anson, a lithe “Eurasian” gal who works as a high-class escort and provides the company with information as a side-venture. And guess what, Majorca is just where Stark happens to be flying! So the thrust of this particular installment is built around coincidence, but it’s no big deal. And anyway Stark only discovers the company is here by accident, after dumping the gay pilot at the airport he and Amanda head for the guy’s villa, Amanda hoping that Stark can at least apologize for how he treated the guy.

This gradually leads into a bloody confrontation in which a handful of people gorily die, including poor old Amanda, you won’t be surprised to discover. But Kiki Anson makes off with the briefcase of diamonds (including the darkly humorous detail of her running over Amanda’s corpse and beheading it), and Stark, in his grief and rage, eventually figures out that there was something special about that briefcase. Interrogating and killing several more Majorca-based company men, Stark finally puts it together that the briefcase was stuffed with diamonds. And his war chest is running thin, so this is perfect opportunity for him to get more money and also fulfill his pledge to kill company representatives.

John Stark is different from Mack Bolan and most other Mafia busters in that he could care less about helping society as a whole. Stark is very much only concerned with himself and his own vengeance. If his attacks happen to staunch some nefarious company scheme, so much the better, but that’s never his overriding goal. He just wants to kill company scum, but knows there are ultimately too many of them; he also knows he’s on a death quest, and could care less about this as well. While this is a “believable” mindset for such a character, it does make Stark seem to be a pretty self-centered prick. Hell, he even brushes off Amanda’s death, never once reprimanding himself for having inadvertently caused it. “She knew the risks,” he tells himself, and that’s that.

Like Mack Bolan, though, wherever Stark goes he finds trouble, and after blasting away company men in Majorca he gets word that Kiki Anson has just booked passage on a flight to Cyprus. Off Stark goes in pursuit, getting in an instanst skirkmish with company goons in Cyprus. In an entertaining sequence Stark blows up a few company cars and escapes without a scratch, even stopping for the hell of it to pick up a pair of American tourists who are checking out Cyprus. What with the rampant country-hopping, the Stark series almost comes off like a Eurotrash equivalent of The Executioner.

Stark tracks Kiki Anson to Cyprus, where she’s hooked up with her apparent lover, Thalia. Kiki is in no way a femme fatale-type, and indeed is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; turns out she took the diamonds in a dazed state, and thus is happy to give Stark whatever he wants. But the company is already in pursuit, and the climax features an overly-long sequence of a pair of Greek brothers who come after all of them. One thing that must be said about Harknett is that he is a positively unsentimental author, and will kill off characters without compunction. Seriously, if you are a character in this novel and your name isn’t “Stark,” odds are you’re going to die.

Oh, and meanwhile we learn that the old plane carrying the Chinese group and their heroin has crashed, outside of Lebanon. After a gory battle there in Cyprus, Stark bluffs his way onto a Riachi-owned helicopter and goes to the site of the crash, where Riachi is about to make a deal with the Palestinian soldiers who have discovered and thus confiscated the crashed plane. Riachi will give them the diamonds in exchange for the heroin. Instead it leads to a sort of anticlimactic finale in which Stark sets off a skirmish between Riachi’s enforcers and the Palestinians, while Stark himself hides in the crashed plane until it’s safe.

Harknett is a fine writer, and some of the deadpan dialog he gives Stark is hilarious (not to mention the puns he devises to close several chapters). But man does he overwrite. There is just endless description and detail in this novel, with huge, thick chunks of paragraphs on each and every page describing in copious detail each and every little thing. After a while it gets to be a drag, and this is something a reviewer should never admit, but I found that skimming portions of The Chinese Coffin resulted in a much more fluid – and enjoyable – read. Seriously, once you’ve read one several-line paragraph about what a cloud looks like, you’ve read them all.

So while The Chinese Coffin was enjoyable for the most part, and certainly violent and gory, it came off as more of a trying and tiring read than it should have. Also, Stark himself is a bit of a cipher, and you don’t root for him as you would other men’s adventure protagonists, at least not in this volume. That being said, I do have a few more of these Stark novels, as well as the final volume of the series (only published in the UK), so I’ll be checking them out.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Big Brain #1: The Aardvark Affair

The Big Brain #1: The Aardvark Affair, by Gary Brandner
February, 1975  Zebra Books

A few years before he hit it big with The Howling, Gary Brandner turned out this three-volume series for Zebra Books. As Marty McKee notes, this first volume is basically a mystery, and a sort of watered-down one at that. There is nothing particularly exciting or memorable about The Aardvark Affair -- certainly nothing to live up to the crazy cover.

Our titular protagonist is Colin Garrett, a 30 year-old supergenius whose skull is, unfortunately, not transparent. However the cover painting is correct in that Colin’s eyes glow, but only when he’s concentrating on some problem. Brandner devotes a lot of the narrative to Colin’s backstory. We learn that he was raised by academic professionals who decided before he was even born that their child was going to be a genius. So instead of a regular childhood Colin Garrett was focused on academia and learning, to the point where he was well advanced beyond the norm in many fields before he was even five years old.

However this intense study had side-effects, such as the glowing eyes deal. His concerned parents learned that Colin was applying himself too much, but before they could do much to righten this they were killed in a car wreck. Colin was then raised by his less-intelligent uncle, who at least got Colin into sports, so the boy could learn to use his body as well as his mind. Colin, picked on by the other kids and taunted as “Big Brain,” learned how to shut off “circuits” in his mind until he could operate on a normal level. Now, as an adult, he only turns on these circuits, sort of ratcheting himself up to supergenius status, when necessary. 

Colin served briefly in the Army and is contacted now by his former Colonel, Jefferson “JJ” Judd. Judd is no longer in the military and says he works for an ultra-secret intelligence outfit called Agency Zero, which doesn’t officially resist. Colin, despite having issues with Judd’s story, still decides to take off to Seattle with him, Colin leaving his poor girlfriend Fran in the lurch. In Seattle Colin learns about the Aardvark Project, which takes place about fifty miles from the city and apparently involves using lasers and ultrasonics to make infertile soil fertile.

The problem is, three of the people working on this project have all lost their senses. The government wants to keep all this hush-hush, and so has hired Agency Zero to figure out what happened. Colin looks over the brain-addled victims, quickly deducing that one of them is faking it. But the faker, a dude named Dempster, takes off. Judd calls in someone to help Colin; this turns out to be Beverley “Beano” Rocker, a muscle-bound agency vet who quickly teaches Colin how to shoot firearms, our protagonist never having handled a gun before, and for that matter nervous about this whole affair.

After a quick trip to Hawaii, in which they discover Dempster’s corpse, the duo flies back to Washington, where Colin learns that the Aardvark Project was really a top-secret weapons initiative. Brandner doles out heaps of characters, among them Russians who, due to d├ętente, are now trying to tour Aardvark for the UN, and Judd is certain of course they’re spies. Meanwhile Colin manages to hook up with hotbod Valerie Lewis, an employee of CLEEN, a Seattle-based eco group. Brandner however fades immediately to black in the ensuing scene, and the novel is not explicit in the least; this includes the handful of action scenes.

In fact, The Aardvark Affair just kind of plods on and on. Colin Garrett is definitely more of a “realistic” sort of men’s adventure protagonist – but then, a protagonist with incredible intelligence whose eyes glow when he focuses on something. Brandner does do a good job of delivering a believable genius protagonist, with Colin busting out information and quickly figuring things out. He does fall to the usual men’s adventure protagonist mistake, though, leaving his girlfriend unprotected; there follows a part where Fran is abducted, and after receiving a ransom call, Colin, scanning his memory of the brief phone conversation, deduces that the abductors are in Mexico!

This is one of the novel’s few action scenes, though “The Big Brain” gets caught, and is subjected to watching as the Mexican abductors are about to rape Fran. Beano arrives to save the day, though, which leads us into the homestretch, as Colin figures out a Russian plot behind everything. Here a lot of briefly-introduced characters are revealed to be spies and, in the novel’s one memorable touch, one of them turns out to be a very-unexpected traitor. But again, all of it is relayed without the blood, guts, and sex I demand in my ‘70s men’s adventure novels. Brandner’s writing is fine, particularly with the dialog, but the book comes off as very padded and tepid.

The Aaardvark Affair ends with Colin turning down Judd’s offer to fully join Agency Zero, preferring to return to his “normal” life in Los Angeles. But given that there are two more volumes to go, I’m guessing he eventually changed his mind.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Executioner #7: Nightmare In New York

The Executioner #7: Nightmare In New York, by Don Pendleton
July, 1971  Pinnacle Books

After a few volumes that were entertaining but seemed to be missing something, the Executioner series returns with a bang with this seventh volume, easily my favorite yet of Don Pendleton's original run. Here Pendleton is settling into the forumla that will take him through the next 30-odd books, and what an enjoyable ride it is, as Mack Bolan blitzes the Manhattan mob and leaves gory ruin in his wake.

Events pick up very soon after the previous volume, with Bolan flying into JFK airport from London. Pendleton excels at opening action scenes, and delivers another fine one here, with a group of Mafia enforcers waiting to ambush Bolan at the airport. Since he doesn’t have a gun (having checked it to avoid “the hijack-conscious air marshalls”), Bolan has to use his wits to lift one from one of the goons, and then leads them on a chase through JFK. Apparently at this time helicopters took passengers from JFK into Manhattan (?!), and there follows another memorable scene where Bolan storms out of the copter and blows away some thugs who are waiting for him at the helipad.

Bolan though gets injured, and half-dead collapses in a Manhattan office building. He wakes up in a penthouse suite, where he is being tended to by three beautiful young women: Paula, the oldest of the three, and a former nurse; Evie, the youngest and the one who seems most interested in Bolan; and Rachel, a hotbod brunette model who likes to prance around the suite naked – that is, when she isn’t meditating in the lotus position. Bolan is instantly taken with Rachel, and here again Pendleton serves up the now-familiar story of Bolan chastizing himself that it’s impossible for him to fall in love, but what could have been, and etc, etc. 

The stuff with the girls goes on for a while, with them tending Bolan back to health. Apparently it was all Evie’s idea, as she instantly figured out who Bolan was, having been a fan of his from the news. However nothing ultimately comes of any of this, with Bolan keeping his hands off the girls, though there is a long-simmer deal with Rachel, who despite her beauty apparently has some significant pubic hair (but then, it was the ‘70s), with Evie twice referring to it condescendingly, first calling it a “hairy monkey” and later a “monkey’s mouth!” Now there’s an image that sticks with you.

Also worth mentioning is that Rachel is a straight-up New Ager, and she enjoys engaging Bolan in weighty conversations. However, the majority of her dialog seems to come right out of Pendleton’s earlier The Godmakers, which I found interesting; especially given Bolan’s curt and humorous responses to her mystic prattle. But Bolan can’t sit around forever, and once he’s healed enough he heads out to even up the score on the mobsters who jumped him. These turn out to be minions of Sam the Bomber Chianti, a “contractor’s contractor” who does all of the hiring for Manhattan capo Freddie Gambella.

There’s a bit of a Richard Stark feel to the opening half of this volume, as Bolan is as merciless as Parker. First he does away with some thugs who come to the girls’s apartment, making the lone survivor load up his dead pals into the trunk of his car, and then Bolan blows away the poor guy, too, tossing him in the trunk with his buddies! There’s also a Parker-style heist, actually more in line with something Westlake would’ve published under his own name, when Bolan discovers a Mafia bank hidden behind a barbershop in Harlem.

Had Nightmare In New York been a movie, this bit would’ve been accompanied by “comedy music,” as in an unbelievable but humorous sequence Bolan bluffs his way into the “secure” bank, acts like he’s a rep for Freddie Gambella, and starts yelling at everyone that the cops are about to raid the place. He makes off with twenty-five thousand dollars, not having fired a single shot. And while Bolan’s smart about stuff like this, he makes some serious mistakes in not realizing he should be protecting the three girls who tended to him. 

Sure enough Gambella gets one of them, and here we have one of the series’s first “turkey doctor” scenes; in fact I think it might be the very first one. Pendleton doles out the sadism like a regular Russell Smith, detailing the poor girl’s terror-filled night in a meat-packing plan Gambella owns. When Bolan later finds the mauled, raped, and mutilated corpse, Pendleton serves up enough detail to make your flesh squirm, including the unforgettable tidbit that the girl’s eyelids have been sliced off. Bolan’s “rescue” of her corpse is yet another highlight in a book filled with them, as he blows away the goons just as they’re clearing up the mess they created.

What sets Bolan apart from the Imitation Executioners that followed in his wake is his human nature, as evidenced by his occasional tendency to let various mobsters survive his blitzes. Sometimes this is a bit too much, and Pendleton walks the line with such a moment here, as before the “turkey doctor” sequence Bolan visits Sam the Bomber at his home, ready to axe him…only to be talked out of it by the guy’s wife! What at first appears to be a maudlin bit is later played out more fully, when Bolan again visits Sam, who is heeding Bolan’s advice and packing to split town; Sam here delivers a long monologue on how his wife made him the man he is. But anyway, Sam is the one who, as “thanks” for letting him live, informs Bolan that Gambella has gotten one of the girls.

After this turning point Bolan’s pretty much in blitz mode throughout, running roughshod over the five families of New York, Gambella’s goons in particular. There’s another memorable part where he takes the mutilated corpse of the girl to Gambella’s palatial home, blows away all of the mobsters there, and then makes Gambella’s wife confront the reality of what her husband truly is by showing her the desecrated body. This is a weird scene for sure, with the woman refusing to give in to Bolan, even stating proudly that her husband has gone off with “some girls” because “He’s a real man!”

As if the whole revenge angle wasn’t enough, Pendleton works in a subplot that Gambella and the other four capos are working up some huge conspiracy, something involving the government. Bolan gets the intel from Leo Turrin, who is becoming more focal in the series; Bolan even checks in on his kid brother Johnny, the first time I think he’s even been mentioned since the first volume. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Bolan, who is on the lookout for both the cops and the Mafia, goes around in a hippie disguise, complete with a leather vest, big granny sunglasses, and even a VW Minivan.

The action becomes more fierce as the novel rolls along, with Bolan desperate to find the now-missing two girls, and of course discovering at length that Gambella has them. But this all ties in with the conspiracy angle, as Bolan has already pulled a soft probe on “Stoney Lodge,” an opulent Long Island complex the Mafia uses for executive-level discussions; Bolan quickly deduces that Gambella has taken the girls there, given that he’s scheduled to be meeting with the other four New York capos. This all leads into a taut and exciting climax in which Bolan, geared up with machine guns and a bazooka, pulls a devestating raid on Stoney Lodge. However Pendleton dangles a carrot with the unexpected survival of Freddie Gambella, who nonetheless loses an arm in the raid; certainly he’ll be back in a future installment.

In addition to the sadism level of the turkey doctor sequence, Pendleton also increases the gore factor, with Nightmare In New York the most violent entry yet. We get thorough, bloody detail as Bolan kills hordes of Mafia enforcers, including one memorable bit where he blows away a fat one with his “chattergun” and Pendleton describes how the dude’s stomach explodes. In fact the only thing missing from the novel, from a pulp perspective, is sex; we get lots of detail of how nubile and busty the three gals who rescue Bolan are, but for once the Executioner himself doesn’t get lucky.

Also I have to again say how great Pendleton’s writing is. He has an excellent grasp on pulp writing, doling out just the right balance of description, dialog, and action; in other words, one never outweighs the other. For comparison, right now I’m reading Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin, which is by Joseph Hedges (aka Terry Harknett) and was originally published in the UK in 1973 under the series title The Revenger. It’s good and all, but Harknett’s prose weighs the book down, with endless detail and description, to the point where the novel gets to be a drag.

Don Pendleton however clearly understood how to write pulp, and I mean that as a compliment – I mean the guy could’ve just as easily written a “real” novel. But I think it’s just as hard to write a pulp novel, at least if you’re going to try to do it right, and Pendleton certainly knows how. It’s like Zwolf said – Pendleton is “a Cadillac in the parking lot of action-series writers,” and Nightmare In New York is just another example of his mastery of the craft.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Rapist

The Rapist, by Don Logan
October, 1975  Pocket Books

Jeez, here’s Don Logan with the feel-good book of the summer!! Seriously though, The Rapist is another of those lurid crime paperbacks copyright Lyle Kenyon Engel, just like Manning Lee Stokes's Corporate Hooker, Inc. And, according to Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms III, “Don Logan” was none other than William Crawford.

Last year I read the first volume of Crawford’s Stryker series, which I found a little frustrating due to Crawford’s tendency to constantly stall forward momentum by doling out inconsequential backstories about every single character introduced or mentioned. He does the same thing throughout The Rapist, though not quite to the extent of Stryker #1. I wonder if Crawford was a cop, or a former cop, or maybe just a cop junkie or something, because once again he has turned out a cop novel that seems very much grounded in reality and research.

Also, like Stokes’s novel, The Rapist reads a lot like the ‘70s work of Herbert Kastle, in particular Cross-Country. It’s a dark, dark tale, about the titular character’s horrific and gruesome assaults upon strong-willed women in mid-‘70s New York City, and it pulls no punches. Suprisingly though, the novel never once trades in outright sleaze, and despite the lurid happenings it doesn’t comes across like a cheap work of exploitation. In fact there isn’t even a single sex scene, though Crawford does provide a few violent shooutouts.

The rapist of the title is a young, good-looking guy named Timothy Johnson (though Crawford at first only refers to him as “the Rapist” in the sections from his perspective). He’s tall, muscular, and very attractive to women. He’s also got tattoos all over his arms, and we eventually learn in a “boy how the times have changed” moment that tattoos are generally the sign of a criminal, though “there is no direct correllation between the two.” The Rapist opens the novel with one of his “hits,” stealing an attractive young woman off the streets, killing her instantly, and raping and mutilating her corpse in his windowless delivery van. 

Crawford never actually describes one of the Rapists’s attacks, but he does serve up the lurid details when the cops inspect the corpse he leaves behind. It’s so desecrated and defiled that even hardbitten vets run to the john to puke. However our two heroes manage to keep their gorge down, despite how revolted they are: Burrell Mackey, at 48 one of the older men on the force, but a mountain of muscle nonetheless, and Lee Cotton, a younger but still experienced cop who was a Green Beret in ‘Nam. Both men are detectives, with Mackey the lead, and Crawford serves up details about how crime fighting has much changed from when Mackey joined the force back in ’46, right after fighting in the war.

Another of Crawford’s annoying tendencies is referring to his characters by multiple names in the narrative. He does this in The Rapist, and it gets to be confusing at first, like for example how he refers to Mackey as “Mackey,” “Burrell,” and most confusingly (at first) “Burr.” It might sound like a minor thing, but it does cause for some disconnect when the reader’s trying to figure out who the author is referring to. Even more disconnect is caused by the arbitrary backstories that spring up in the text, usually so unnecessary as to be hilarious, like when Crawford mentions that a doctor helps out the precinct anonymously and then explains that he does so because he wouldn’t want his regular patients to know he is helping the cops. Just little things like this, like the Stryker installment I read, really halt the forward momentum for no good reason.

The cops are in an increasing panic as Johnson murders and ravages several more women, leaving mauled corpses in his wake. Instead of following on this story, Crawford instead gets in this long subplot where Mackey and Cotton begin hassling the well-known Johnson brothers, local criminals who have often had run-ins with the law. They check with them merely to see if they can get more info about this rapist – at this point, the fact that his last name is also “Johnson” is not known by the police; it’s all just lazy, coincidental plotting. But at any rate it leads to this very long gunfight in which a few of the brothers end up dead. 

Meanwhile the rapist gets clawed up by one of his victims, and later during his getaway he runs into cops, attacking them. When Mackey and Cotton see the guy at the next morning’s lineup of all people arrested the previous day, they instantly suspect him, due to his tattoos. At this point he’s given his name as “Johnsen,” but our protagonists can’t get over how his facial features are so like those other Johnson brothers. At great length it develops that “Timmy Johnson” killed his dad when he was a kid and almost killed his stepdad, and thus was placed in a mental ward, the majority of his brothers disowning him and insisting he change his last name. So in other words, he really is another of those criminal Johnson brothers the author so lazily introduced.

The rapist goes free after the lineup – only later do the cops learn who he is – and continues about his campaign. But The Rapist is also like Corporate Hooker, Inc. in that it starts off being one thing but ends up being another. When an A.P.B. is put out on the rapist, he spots a motorcycle cop following him, and runs him over. But with his dying breath the cop gets off a few shots, each of them hitting the rapist. Half-dead, he holes up in a building, eventually resorting to one of his brothers for help.

Now the novel becomes just another “fugitive on the run” tale, and this goes on for well over a hundred pages, with Crawford adding to the page count with anecdotes about what it’s like to be a cop. There’s also lots of time-filler stuff with Richard Rivers, yet another of those Geraldo Rivera-type journalists who always pop up in these pulp crime novels, as an eternal thorn in authority’s side; he starts up CAPJAL, or “Capture Johnson Alive,” an uber-liberal initiative to ensure Timothy Johnson is not killed via the usual “police brutality.” All of this ultimately leads nowhere, though we do get the memorable image of Rivers shitting himself when he finally gets a chance to meet Johnson – Crawford, as shown in Stryker #1, has a special fondness for having his characters shit themselves.

It all builds up to a gradual climax in which Johnson holes up in the apartment of his first victim in the novel, taking captive the girl’s roommate, Tawny. After lots of (undescribed) degradation of the poor girl, as well as traded rants with the cops, it culminates with Mackey and Cotton attacking the apartment, with Cotton in these final pages going into “Vietnam mode” and wanting to kick some shit. It all leads to a downbeat finale, with one of the two cops dead, but it sort of lacks punch because, despite the amount of time spent with these guys, it’s not like we got to know either of them.

I think Crawford is a good writer, with dialog and incidental details that seem cut from real-life, but I just don’t think he’s a very good novelist. Which is to say, he has the details and the dialog, but when it comes to putting it all together into a cogent whole, he sort of fails. The novel comes off more like lots of arbitrary cop stories interspersed with periodic flashes of sadism, before building up to a hasty and anticlimactic finale. In other words The Rapist is a lot like the later lurid crime novel Hellfire.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jason Striker #6: Curse Of The Ninja

Jason Striker #6: Curse Of The Ninja, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes
December, 2001  Xlibris Books

The Jason Striker series came to an ignoble end in April, 1976, and for the next few decades our judo-loving, book-narrating hero was cast into limbo. Then in 2001 Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes self-published the series as three trade paperbacks; in the third volume they included the material they’d written back in late 1975 for the never-completed sixth (and final?) installment of the series. What’s interesting is that, other than being incomplete, Curse Of The Ninja is of a piece with those earlier volumes – just as clunky, arbitrary, and time-wasting. 

As we’ll recall, the previous volume ended with Jason Striker half-dead from a gallstone, abandoned on a wooden craft as it sailed down a river in the Amazon jungle. So then it only makes sense that this volume opens with a hale and hearty Striker competing in a judo tournament for the rokudan level of black belt! And familiar faces watch from the crowd, among them Thera Drummond (last seen in #3: The Bamboo Bloodbath) and Ilunga (last seen in #4: Ninja's Revenge). At first I hoped the previous two volumes had just been a dream, and that the series could continue on the enjoyable course of the first three volumes, but no; it turns out the judo tournament itself is the dream.

Striker wakes up in Miami, where he’s been living the past few months as “Caesar Kane,” a name he’s chosen for himself because – you guessed it – he has amnesia! Like the other novels, Curse Of The Ninja is written in first-person past tense, which makes for some pretty clunky narrative, ie “At that time however I did not remember who I was,” and the like. Anyway, Striker has somehow gotten to Florida, where he was found along the road (or something) by some dude who just offered Striker to sleep at his place until he got an apartment of his own. (And as for that gallstone, Striker discovers surgery scars on his abdomen, as if he’s recently undergone hasty, emergency surgery…)

But Striker knows where his priorities lay, and soon enough visits a judo dojo, compelled there by his dream; the people watching him in the crowd in that dream, of course, are now mysteries to his conscious mind, and he has no knowledge that he’s actually a judo master. But in the class he gets tossed around, still finding that he’s capable of doing things which seem fantastic. Of course, who gives a damn about all of this stuff anyway; it’s pointless, and we want to continue with the storyline that’s been developing since the fourth volume, if for no other reason than to see the damn thing through.

However, “plot development” is relegated to Striker’s dreams, in which we get flashbacks to stuff that happened toward the end of Amazon Slaughter but wasn’t actually detailed in that book. For example, we’ll recall how in the end of that fifth volume Striker and Dulce came upon a tribe of headhunters in the Amazon, and how these people were greatly impressed by Striker’s judo skills. In one of these dream sequences, we see that the tribe chief insisted that Striker sleep with his private harem of five women. A very explicit sex scene ensues, Striker finding out at the last moment that he’s expected to have sex with all five, one after another, or he might be killed.

And just when Striker’s spirits are flagging, so to speak, that mystical ki power hits him and he’s ready for action again! This sequence is very lurid and exploitative, with the last girl in the harem a prepubscent virgin! It’s just kind of, oh…off-putting. Oh, and afterwards, snapped out of his ki-madness thanks to the arrival of Dulce (who takes Striker’s mass-screwing in stride, even though at the beginning of the scene Striker was afraid to sleep with the harem, for fear of invoking a jealous Dulce’s wrath), Striker looks upon the harem and sees that the first four women are in reality all fat, old, and ugly…and he has to inform us how the child member has been harmed by his member (which we’re further informed is “in proportion” to Striker’s body, but still damn huge when compared to these jungle Indians).

I’ve really disliked this “Black Castle/jungle Indians” storyline which began in the fourth volume, mostly due to the way it’s been told, but anyway I hoped to get some resolution out of it, or at least the satisfaction that it had been building up toward something. But my friends, the authors instead fill endless pages with am amnesiac Jason Striker learning judo…a-and having super-explicit sex with a woman named Susan who might know who he really is…a-and roofing a house!! All that shit that occurred in the previous two books – Fu Antos and his Black Castle, Mirabal and his plotting, Dulce and her sacrifice to stay with Fu Antos, etc, etc – all of it is just brushed to the side, as if it never happened, so we can instead read all about “Caesar Kane’s” endless struggles in learning judo. And roofing houses.

Finally Striker takes a fall and hits his head and guess what, remembers who he is. This is unfortunately after too, too many pages have elapsed. Now he realizes that Susan was once a student of his, and apparently she’s been with him these weeks because she had a secret crush on him and so took advantage of his amnesiatic status. Or something. Anyway, Striker makes a brief phone call back home, talking to Ilunga – her short and unfortunately final appearance in the series – and decides to once again head down into the damn Amazon to wrap up this whole business with Fu Antos. And Susan, of course, offers to go along, even offering the services of her motor home.

And yet, even here the authors dawdle. Even as Striker heads for a final confrontation with his enemy, we get inconsequential stuff like Striker meeting up with on old judo pal, whose dojo they happen to pass by on the road. The closer we get to the finale, the less material there is, with the authors informing us in brackets of sections that were never written. But here’s the thing – the unwritten stuff sounds miles better than the shit they actually did write! This is especially true of the unwritten conclusion, which is presented in a synopsis, in which we learn that: “The Black Castle has been built on the site of ancient ruins; there is evidence of alien visitation from space, millennia ago. There are strange things here, and Fu Antos is reconstructing the secret science of these aliens, augmenting his own weird physical and mental powers fantastically.” These two sentences are more interesting than the entirety of Curse Of The Ninja.

The authors state that they stopped writing in December 1975, when word came from Berkley that the series was finished. They don’t make it clear if Curse Of The Ninja was originally envisioned as the series finale, but it works that way, for at least so far as the summary goes, Striker is nearly killed by Fu Antos, who magically strips Striker of his judo knowledge. However that overlong opening sequence comes into play here, because Striker – when he was “Caesar Kane” – became a judo white belt, and thus is able to remember enough of the martial arts to best Fu Antos in combat. Then the Indians rise up and destroy the Black Casle. As for what happened to Mirabal, Dulce, Susan, Striker’s people back home, and etc, none of it is answered – though we do get the inane information that Susan is in fact married and has been using Striker for “illicit adventure.”

But anyway the series concludes with a victorious Striker realizing that not only has he finally overcome the voodoo curse he gained in the previous volume, but also that the “scars” of his encounters with it and Fu Antos “will remain as long as Jason Striker lives.” To fill out the rest of the book, the authors include various articles they wrote for Marvel’s Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu magazine, as well as a few short stories featuring Hiroshi, the akido master who appeared throughout the series. There’s also other material, like stuff about Roberto Fuentes’s time as a Cuban revolutionary, as well as various proposals and etc, none of which I read.

But that’s that for the Jason Striker series. And what a strange trip it was. The first three novels, while at times goofy and clunky, were a lot of fun, like vintage ‘70s kung fu movies on paper. But then the next three volumes took a sudden and ultimately irreparable dive. Plotting, characterization, resolution, all of it was jettisoned, and really I can’t think of anything positive to say about these final three volumes. So then, I’d recommend if you do decide to someday check out this series, just stick with the first three volumes. You’ll thank me!