Thursday, August 28, 2014

Deadlier Than The Male (Jana Blake #1)

Deadlier Than The Male, by Jim Conaway
No month stated, 1977  Belmont-Tower Books

J.C. Conaway returns as “Jim” for the first of a two-volume series that comes off like a female-fronted equivalent of Conaway’s earlier Shannon series. Our hero is Jana Blake, a hotstuff blonde (despite the brunette on the cover – and Jana doesn’t wear a trenchcoat or carry a gun, by the way) who lives in Greenwich Village and works as a private investigator who only helps women.

An “ardent feminist who likes men,” per the back cover copy, Jana is apparently new to the world of private investigation, and is waiting for her big case. She lives on the second floor of a Greenwich flophouse, the first floor of which is a leather and chains store that caters to gays, with a gym across the hall from Jana’s apartment and a porn film production company on the third floor! And Jana’s constantly afraid her landlord will discover that she’s actually living here, with a Murphy bed hidden in one of the walls – her lease only calls for her to office out of the room, not live in it fulltime.

Deadlier Than The Male takes place during a very hot New York summer, and opens with the first of a few lurid murders, as a good-looking woman, dressed as a nun, stalks some random middle-age guy from the subway and murders him, unseen by anyone, in the entrance of his swank penthouse. Then she chops off his head and takes it with her, leaving no fingerprints. The woman is of course the novel’s villain, a complete basketcase with one of the most miserable childhoods I’ve ever read in a trash novel.

Interestingly, her first victim is very much like Patrick Shannon himself – we read that he lived in a “sensuous” type of pad with a mirrored ceiling in his opulent bedroom, and was known for courting many ladies. The second murder is even more along the swank lines, as the lady makes her kill in a disco club called Narcissus, and Conaway really goes to town describing the garish, swanky place, with lucite furniture, glowing lights, an entrance that is designed to look like female genitalia, and private “conversation rooms” on the upper floor where couples can go to “talk.”

Once again our villain murders a middle-aged guy who is popular with the ladies, coming on to him and then following him into the restroom – he’s sick from too many drinks – and chopping off his head. A later murder sees her further playing up on her apparent sex appeal, calling up another middle-aged guy and talking her way up into his bedroom, where she has him strip down…and then chops off his head. Like the other two, she makes off with the guy’s head.

The cops are baffled, and Gil Lanahan, the detective working the case, insists they’re all random murders. Jana, following the case in the papers, suspects otherwise. When she’s hired by the mother of the first murdered victim, she promptly follows her hunch and researches the man’s background. This leads her to a private college on Staten Island which the guy attended twenty years before, in 1956 – and Jana soon discovers that the other two victims attended there at the same time, and that they were all friends.

Her alarm bells are set off by the creepy old “house mother” who oversees the fraternity house the three men once lived in; the lady first professes not to remember them, but as she goes on she starts to say the three were like “sons” to her. Jana also notices a photo with the three victims, taken in 1956, with their arms around two other guys – surely, if the murders are connected, these two will be next on the list.

Meanwhile Jana’s busy getting laid by her studly Italian boyfriend (who runs a fruit stand across the street from her apartment!) and, of course, by Detective Lanahan. Conaway serves up some explicit sequences here, but rarely does he write them from Jana’s perspective, as per usual he POV-hops throughout the novel. And also as per usual he maintains a lurid, sleazy vibe through the novel, often cutting over to the nameless murderer's viewpoint while she’s pleasuring herself.

Conaway also must’ve had a thing for off-Broadway plays, as each novel I’ve yet read by him has either featured theater actors or the protagonists going to a play. This time Jana and her gay best friend go to see a “rock musical” based on Oedipus Rex titled “Mother Fucker” (later changed to “Mother Lover”) which turns out to be performed mostly by transvestites. Conaway doesn’t provide a long sequence detailing the play, like he did in Shannon #3, but it’s certainly memorable enough, and also a lyric in one of the songs gives Jana the idea that whatever is causing these present murders had its beginnings in the past.

Gradually we learn that our nameless murderer was, as a sixteen year-old, raped by these five college boys, all of whom were spoiled, troublemaking offspring of millionaires. We also learn her sad backstory, how her mother (whose surprise reveal is easily seen coming) completely ignored her, and even used her horrible raping as a way to get some money for herself. Jana deduces all of this from basically looking at photos and asking questions; there are no wild shootouts or in fact any action scenes in the entire novel.

So then Deadlier Than The Male is about on par with everything else I’ve read by J.C. Conaway, with a definite sleaze factor at play and a goofy feeling to the entire proceedings. However Jana is more likable than Patrick Shannon, a good-natured bombshell who wants to make her mark as a private investigator. She only had one more shot at it, though, with the second volume, They Do It With Mirrors, being the last one in the series.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Operation Hang Ten #3: Deadly Group Down Under

Operation Hang Ten #3: Deadly Group Down Under, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

Possibly one of the most overpriced men’s adventure series on the market, with some volumes listed online at vomit-inducing prices, Operation Hang Ten is also one of the more unusual, so far as series concepts go, with its hero a 23 year-old surfer who works as a spy. Yet another paperback series copyright packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, Operation Hang Ten was never picked up by another publishing company when Macfadden Books went out of business, which may explain why the books are now so scarce and expensive.

But then, if this third volume is any indication, there may be a good reason why the series was never picked up – namely, our “hero” is an asshole of the first order, outranking even Tracker – yes, outranking even Tracker!! Bill Cartwright is a misogynist, cynical, chauvinist, arrogant, obnoxious dickhead, affronting everyone and anyone for no reason whatsoever, including ultimately the reader. He is also absolutely nothing like you’d expect the hero of a series titled “Operation Hang Ten” to be.

Marty McKee well summed up Cartwright in his review of the 8th volume: “For a counterculture hero, Cartwright doesn't seem to care much for the counterculture, and his attitude towards women belongs to a man at least twenty years older and a decade earlier.” Beyond that, Bill Cartwright is much too cynical and all-knowing for a 23 year-old surf bum, with a caustic opinion on everything. I mean people, imagine John Updike as a surfer spy and you’d be close to the bizarre, off-putting feel of this series.

I’ve mentioned before how I detest online reviews that mock older books for their “outdated” sentiments and etc, so I realize I’m coming off as hypocritical, but honest to god, I’m not exaggerating here. Bill Cartwright has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He hates everyone and everything, especially women, and throughout the novel he acts abrasively to anyone he meets. As a spy he’s a waste, and so far as his “cover” as a private investigator goes, he sucks at that, too. Now as for surfing, as far as he’s concerned he’s the best there is.

Anyway. Deadly Group Down Under has Cartwright (or “Bill,” as he’s referred to in the narrative itself) tasked with infiltrating the circle which surrounds an up-and-coming young starlet named Lisa Dane, an Australian with “cotton candy” dyed white hair who both sings and acts. For some convoluted reason never made clear she has been dubbed “Queen of the Surfers,” even though she’s never surfed. To Bill though she’s a “phoney” through and through, and by god don’t think he won’t tell her that.

We open with Bill going about his task in his own assholic way, competing in a surf competition at a party near Lisa Dane’s rented beach house in Santa Monica; the winner gets a black opal and a kiss from Lisa. Bill wins, of course, but then takes the opal, drops it down the front of her dress, and struts arrogantly off. When later he’s threatened by Lisa’s manager, Lance Mikesell, and the man’s security guard, Dingo Lon, Bill tells them to screw off, enjoying a scotch and soda – the preferred drink of every 23 year-old surfer in 1970, of course. 

As Bill expected, Lisa Dane falls for it, coming to check out this mysterious man who spurned her. Bill ends up taking her back to his trailer, which is one of the few interesting touches of the series – it’s equipped with a “scanner” that alerts Bill when anyone comes close to it, and also has a computer that makes him his drinks. I lost count of the number of times I read how Cartwright “dialed up a scotch and soda.” After treating Lisa like shit some more, Bill of course scores with her, though the details are kept vague; this is another of those series where we cut to black when the dirty stuff begins.

Oh yeah, Bill’s supposed to infiltrate the group because someone in Lisa’s circle is taking photos of US military institutions around the world and selling them to the Chinese! But he’s more concerned that the girl is using him as a way to validate her “Queen of the Surfers” status, and he doesn’t like that at all. Oh, and he’s even more pissed that his boss Jim Dana has graced him with an untried young female partner named Lulu, who’s posing as one of the beach bum girls in Lisa’s orbit.

Bill’s vitriol for Lulu is almost as rampant as it is for Lisa Dane. He doesn’t get much chance to unleash it on a third female he’s been “saddled” with, Sharon Ryan, who currently works as Lisa Dane’s assistant but ends up dead when the group comes back from Switzerland to Australia, Bill going there himself to hook up with Lisa on Bondi Beach. Throughout the novel Bill and Lulu trade banter, but it isn’t fun banter, with Bill constantly telling her she’s an idiot and needs to quit because women shouldn’t be working as spies. For example:

Bill closed his eyes. He felt his jaws ache from gritting his teeth. Where was Lulu? Right there was the jolt he needed. A woman’s place was in the oven. Girls belonged at home, barefoot and pregnant, their lives should revolve around some man. This was not work for them. They were created for the care and pleasure of man.

That’s an actual quote from the novel, and it’s a glimpse of the mindset the reader is forced to endure for about 170 pages of smallish print. (Also, one has to wonder what the hell “A woman’s place was in the oven” is supposed to mean – surely he means kitchen??) Of course, none of this stops ol’ Bill from constantly trying to get in Lulu’s bikini trunks. To her credit she constantly stops him, saying she doesn’t want to become yet another of Bill Cartwright’s untold conquests.

Our hero doesn’t just piss off the women, though. Throughout the novel he rushes from one confrontation to another – confrontations he himself starts. For example when attempting to get information from Lisa Dane’s tour photographer, he busts into the poor guy’s place, threatens him, makes fun of him for practically worshipping Lisa, what with all the photos of her hanging about, and then storms out, later coming back to punch the guy a few times! When Lance Mikesell and Lingo Don, despite being the obvious villains of the story (there are like six characters in the entire novel), try to make peace with Bill, he tells them to fuck off. 

On and on it goes, but I started to suspect that maybe here we have another instance of the Ryker effect, ie where our “hero” is not intended to be seen as a hero. Throughout the novel other characters constantly call Cartwright out for being a jerk. Unlike Ryker though his plans usually work out perfectly and he seems to know exactly what’s going on all the time. So who knows, maybe the author means it all to be taken in earnest, and Bill Cartwright is not intended to be seen as a parody of the genre. But as mentioned earlier, he sucks at his job; his “deductive skills” amount to breaking and entering and snooping around. Then he goes back to his trailer and “dials up a scotch and soda.”

As for action, there are only a few fights here, all of them hand-to-hand. A pair of would-be murderers break into Bill’s trailer on Bondi Beach, and he fights them off in a savage brawl, getting some help from an apparently-recurring character, John Fast Black Washington, a black surfer who by the way is black (per ‘70s pulp demands, we are constantly reminded of this). In between bloody fights, these two like to trade world-weary, cynical banter, despite being in their early 20s.

Writing wise the novel’s not bad, so far as the word-spinning goes. But it’s very much in Bill’s perspective (the novel feels like it’s in first-person even though it isn’t), constantly going on and on about his strong opinions on this or that. We also get large blocks devoted to his misogynist philosophy. As I’ve written before, all of this is fine in small doses, I mean the one thing I want from this genre is over-the-top stuff, but at the same time, good grief is it annoying.

Beyond the skill of the prose itself, the plot kind of sucks. As mentioned there are only a few people in the novel, so any “mystery” of who the culprits are is quickly seen through. One also suspects the author had a hard time living up to the no-doubt Engel-created concept of the series, of a “hip” young surfer who is a spy; Bill Cartwright is less hip than Nick Carter. Finally, at least so far as this particular volume goes, the series really lacks in the action and sex category, with too much introspection (and arrogant bluster) getting in the way.

So who was Patrick Morgan? It was really an author named George Snyder, who takes credit for the entire series on his blog. As mentioned above, Operation Hang Ten is not an easy series to get hold of. Last December I was in an antiques store and came across three volumes of the series; sure, they were all beaten to shit and three dollars each, but I grabbed them anyway. So once I build up the stamina I’ll try to endure another one.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Aquanauts #1: Cold Blue Death

The Aquanauts #1: Cold Blue Death, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

The Aquanauts ran for 11 volumes between two publishers (going over to Manor when MacFadden Books went out of business) and was yet another series copyright book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel. “Ken Stanton” throughout the run was Manning Lee Stokes, who at the time was also working for Engel on the Richard Blade and Killmaster series. 

Unfortunately, Cold Blue Death is not an auspicious beginning for the series. Stokes, for whatever reason, takes a novel about an “aquanaut” code named Tiger Shark, who is graced with a high-tech personal submarine and various other gadgets and gear, a plot concerning the Bermuda Triangle and its mysterious history, and underwater nuclear missile sites…and turns in a very slow-moving murder mystery that doesn’t make use of any of the above elements.

The novel is also long: 208 pages of some of the smallest print I’ve yet seen in the men’s adventure genre. The book is more likely around 300 pages, and let me tell you, those pages don’t speed by. There’s barely any white space or dialog, Stokes as usual doling out most of the tale via huge blocks of paragraphs. To clarify, I do enjoy Stokes’s writing – and Cold Blue Death is clearly the work of Stokes – but his constant stalling and reluctance to have his characters do anything can get to be a drag. Yet for all that I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the novel; I just wish it had been more memorable.

At any rate Cold Blue Death, which takes place in January 1969, introduces us to our hero, William Martin, a 30 year-old aquanaut who was raised in a foster home, used his great mind to get him into the best colleges, but instead went into the Navy where he became an expert frogman in ‘Nam. Now he is a “Shark” in the newly-formed Secret Underwater Service, but in this novel Martin is promoted to the level of “Tiger Shark,” the only such one in the SUS, reporting only to a Vice-Admiral and a commander of the Vice-Admiral’s choosing.

The commander turns out to be Tom Greene, a 45 year-old Navy career man who lives comfortably with his wife and figures he’ll be a desk soldier for life. Stokes really fills the novel with Navy details, with all of the regulations and etc of military life, and this in a way separates the series from the “lone wolf” protagonists that would become the mainstays of the men’s adventure genre later in the ‘70s. It’s also a big demerit so far as our hero goes, as he’s constantly worrying about getting reamed out by his superiors and only does what he’s ordered to do.

Stokes does add a comic book feel to the series when Martin officially begins his mission; from there on out he is only referred to as “Tiger Shark,” “The Tiger,” or just “Tiger” in the narrative, as if he has become a superhero, or at least a G.I. Joe character. There’s also a definite similarity to the later (and much superior) John Eagle Expeditor series, with Tiger Shark graced with a high-tech submarine (KRAB – Kraft’s Reconnaissance and Base) that’s outfitted with weapons and can turn itself invisible beneath the sea thanks to chameleon properties. Tiger also has a fancy gun, the Sea Pistol, which is similar to John Eagle’s dart gun but fires underwater; Stokes even uses the exact same sentence to describe it as he would later use to describe Eagle’s gun in Needles Of Death: “The Sea Pistol resembled an oversize Luger.”

Unsurprisingly, the book’s tone is also very similar to John Eagle Expeditor, if only a bit saltier, with a lot more cursing and colorful language than in the Expeditor books. I’ve noticed that people rarely if ever curse in the Expeditor series, but Stokes peppers Cold Blue Death with all manner of filthy language that almost made me put down the book and pray. Just kidding. So far as the good stuff goes, ie the sex and violence, Expeditor would outrank this series on that front, with Stokes providing a lot of buildup but fading to black on the novel’s one and only sex scene, and the violence is limited to a few brief fights in the final pages. 

Anyway, Tiger is very gradually called onto the scene, such as it is, by Vice-Admiral Hank Coffin, an old Navy career man who is best friends with the Chief of Naval Operations for the military – the CNO being the guy who both created SUS and brought on Martin as the first Tiger Shark. Coffin and Commander Greene explain the situation: an SUS Shark named Joe Barry recently died in what was described to the press as an accident. However Barry was really murdered, and he was killed while performing the top secret project of marking areas in the Bermuda Triangle that could be turned into underwater nuclear missile sites. Tiger Shark’s mission is to find out who killed Barry, and if the top secret nature of his work was uncovered.

It’s really not the most compelling of plots, and Stokes does himself no favors by not adding much tension, suspense, or action. He spends most time detailing the Merman, a big liner that is owned by Paul Zamora, an uber-wealthy Onassis type who is known as “Toad” to his friends. The ship has been trolling the waters in the Bermuda Triangle near where Barry’s corpse was discovered, and Tiger instantly sets his sights on it, especially when, in his first trip out on KRAB, he spots a spectacular redhead scuba diving while fully nude; he shadows her, unseen, and watches as she swims up to Merman. This turns out to be Zamora’s latest acquisition, internationally famous jet-setting beauty Morga Hedlund.

Also onboard is another hotstuff female: Peg Taylor, a brilliant-minded aquatic researcher who, we learn after a laborious amount of narrative, was having an affair with Joe Barry…and killed him. Why? Because Barry and she had discovered a wrecked ship from the 18th century that was carrying a large amount of silver coins. When Barry told Peg his desire to come forward with the discovery – and marry Peg – she lost her mind and killed him in a particularly brutal way, strangling him with a steel wire as they were scuba diving by the sunken ship. In other words, Barry’s murder has nothing whatsoever to do with his top secret mission, and thus Cold Blue Death is more of a murder mystery than an action-adventure story.

But it just kind of goes on and on, and your enjoyment will be dependent upon your enjoyment of Stokes’s particular style. Personally I do enjoy his style, and I enjoyed reading the book, but I have to admit it was certainly lacking a whole bunch of things. Not helping matters is that Tiger is sort of a screwup, at least this time out, blowing his mission a handful of times due to his rash actions. He even manages to get himself caught late in the novel. Personality wise he’s very much along the lines of John Eagle, only without the Apache background and more of a “military man” mindset; he doesn’t talk much in the novel, and stays focused on his mission throughout.

Stokes does have a bit of fun when he gives Tiger the in-joke undercover name “Lee Manning;” Tiger uses this cover when he leaves KRAB and goes to Charlotte Amalie, a town in this part of the Bermuda Triangle where Morga will go to blow thousands of dollars a night, towing Peg along with her. Tiger manages to crash their private party and royally turn on Morga. Even though Stokes fades to black in the inevitable sex scene, he holds true to the “salty” feel of the novel with Morga delivering some humdinger lines, practically telling Tiger she’s about to screw him. Meanwhile Peg fumes, knowing that this stranger is the man who recently surprised her while she was scuba diving beneath Merman; yet another instance of Tiger almost blowing his mission, as for no reason he attempts to spook Peg…who almost kills him, instantly slashing his breathing hoses.

It’s not until the very final pages that Tiger does much of anything. Finally given clearance to take over Merman, he sneaks onto the ship, armed only with a .38 revolver (it seems his fancy gadgetry is limited to underwater items), and promptly gets caught! This, other than a brief bit where Tiger kills a guy on the ocean floor with his Sea Pistol, is the novel’s only action sequence. In a scene that reminded me somehow of Lethal Weapon, Tiger is handcuffed to a ceiling pipe and uses his wits and savagery to break free. Meanwhile Morga’s strung out on LSD, nude and covered in psychedelic bodypaint, though Stokes only provides us with this image and doesn’t do much else with it. Even Peg Taylor’s fate is left off the page, which is a shame, as Stokes has built her up to be so manipulative and murderous that you want to see her get her just desserts.

While it wasn’t the greatest first installment for a series, Cold Blue Death was still somewhat enjoyable at times, mostly because it came off like a trial run for the later John Eagle Expeditor books. And it was entertaining enough that I’ll keep reading the series; here’s hoping though that it improves.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Razoni & Jackson #2: Dead End Street

Razoni & Jackson #2: Dead End Street, by W.B. Murphy
May, 1973  Pinnacle Books

As if he wasn’t busy enough co-writing The Destroyer, in the early ‘70s Warren Murphy also turned out this five-volume series that is now most remembered for providing the inspiration for the Lethal Weapon movies; screenwriter Shane Black even gave Murphy official acknowledgement for this, requesting that Murphy be hired to help write the script for Lethal Weapon 2.

Given this, you’d expect Razoni & Jackson to be an action-comedy like Lethal Weapon. However, the series, if this second volume is any indication, is more of a mystery, with barely any action at all; heroes Ed Razoni and William “Tough” Jackson don’t even fire their guns once in Dead End Street, and the most we get for an action scene is a quick scuffle Razoni has with a pimp.

But from what little I’ve read of Murphy’s work, he doesn’t go much for the action stuff; his skill is more with dialog, and it’s here where you can clearly see the Lethal Weapon similarities – not to mention the fact that white Razoni is a young, loose cannon and black Jackson is an older family man. But even this isn’t exactly the same as Lethal Weapon, as Jackson is clearly stated as being bigger and tougher than Razoni, and you can’t help but picture Jim “Slaughter” Brown the way Murphy describes him.

Our heroes bicker and banter throughout Dead End Street, just like Remo and Chiun bicker and banter, and it’s all just as humorous. Another big difference from the Lethal Weapon films is that these two know no boundaries in their bantering, with race usually playing a big element. In his brief mention of the Razoni & Jackson series in his interview with Justin Marriott in The Paperback Fanatic #15, Murphy stated that if anything he was thinking of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby’s relationship in I Spy, and that’s easy to see when reading the books, though again with a bit more racial baiting (usually on Razoni’s part, making fun of Jackson’s attempts at growing an afro).

The plot of this second volume (the first is too grossly overpriced to track down) has our heroes tasked with finding out who has been murdering hookers in Times Square. The novel opens with the cops discovering the third murdered hooker in just a few months: Patsy Parris, who worked a certain area of “The Street” (as Murphy always refers to it – so I’m guessing it’s either Broadway or 42nd Street?) with all of the other hookers. Patsy’s death is not described, we just know that after working her shift until 4AM she’s offered a ride home by a friendly face, and the next chapter we’re informed the cops have found her corpse.

Razoni and Jackson, who are busy busting a corrupt cop who’s selling drugs, are called in by their gruff superior, Captain Marvin Mannion. Our heroes are the sole members of the Special Squad, meaning they get all the “special” jobs. Razoni wonders why the city cares that a bunch of hookers are getting killed, but Mannion reminds him that they’re good for the city’s economy. Not only do city officials want this killer found, they also want the hooker murders kept out of the press; they’re hoping Razoni and Jackson will be able to use all of the other hookers out there as killer bait.

The three dead hookers did not know one another, and the only thing linking them was that they were each platinum blondes from the south. Murphy keeps the mystery tightly knit, with only three characters introduced as possible suspects, all of them doing business on the Street and thus knowing most of the hookers: gruff Sgt. Rijenski, a beat cop; Tony Milller, owner and proprietor of a porn book shop; and Halligan, the sleazy night manager of a sleazy flophouse the hookers use for their appointments, usually giving Miller something free on the side for his allowing them to use the place.

Our heroes have no idea what to do, so they just sort of wander around the Street. Razoni goes undercover as a sailor, hanging out at the raucous Ship Ahoy Club; cue lots of funny banter about Razoni’s cheap sailor costume. Jackson meanwhile scopes out the place, standing around and waiting for Razoni to uncover something. Instead Razoni gets cozy with Lip Service, a hotstuff black hooker who comes on strong to Razoni, who insists that he never has to pay for it. And he doesn’t, as he’s currently got a thing going on with Pat, a gorgeous redhead who works for the paper as a researcher.

One thing that should be mentioned is that, for a novel about hookers and a serial killer, Dead End Street is not in the least bit sensationalistic, explicit, or even lurid. There isn’t a single sex scene (Razoni scores with both Pat and later on with Lip Service, and in both cases Murphy immediately fades to black), and the opening murder of Patsy Parris occurs “off camera” as well. There is no graphic content in the entire book. About the only thing outrageous about the novel is the salty dialog our heroes trade back and forth, which as mentioned can get pretty colorful at times (so to speak).

There also isn’t much sense of danger. Razoni’s only flashes of danger occur when he runs afoul of Lip Service’s suspicious-minded pimp, but even when the guy comes at him with a switchblade you aren’t concerned for Razoni, as the pimp is obviously out of his depth. Later Razoni also runs afoul of Hap Carburgh, a reporter who blew one of Razoni’s cases a few years before, outing his undercover sting in the papers. Now Hap is in New York trying to blow the lid off of the hooker-killings, which is something the New York officials don’t want to happen. Razoni ends up stealing the reporter’s car and destroying all of his film negatives.

As the novel proceeds it becomes pretty clear who the murderer is, but to Murphy’s credit he only has the heroes discover it due to police work and not flashes of inspiration or whatever. Meanwhile Pat has gotten herself in trouble, having gone undercover as a hooker as killer bait. She ends up encountering the man himself, and instantly becomes his latest source of fixation. The finale, while suspenseful, rings a bit hollow because the killer just sort of twiddles his thumbs after he’s cornered Pat, while Razoni and Jackson drive around Manhattan looking for him. But even here there’s no action, our heroes arriving just in time to slap cuffs on the guy and deliver a joke.

But here’s the thing -- Dead End Street was a lot of fun to read. Just as in the Destroyer books it’s the banter between the two lead characters that provides the most entertainment, and I’m happy I have the next three volumes to read.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Body Rub

Body Rub, by Mark Andrews
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

Offering everything I wanted from The Savage Women and more, Body Rub is yet another Leisure paperback original that trades on sin and sleaze. “Massage parlors were a front for prostitution…and worse,” goes the blurry cover blurb, and you’ll never guess what that “worse” entails – that’s right, my friends, Satanism!!

Running to 237 pages of smallish print, Body Rub is more of a breathless cliffhanger than a well-crafted tale. Our hero is Ken Hawkins, young crime reporter for the New York Sun; he also happens to be the scion of the family that started the paper, generations before, and thus is a millionaire who will one day run the place. But he enjoys being a reporter, and the novel, despite taking place in the mid-‘70s, seems to exist in this 1930s-style world in which newspaper reporters are famous. Thus Hawkins is well-known throughout New York, a veritable celebrity.

Hawkins’s current assignment has him looking into the massage parlors that currently proliferate around Manhattan, in particular the dirty, mobbed-up origins of most of them. In particular there’s The Wild West, a parlor in lower Manhattan that employed a masseuse named Marcia, whose body was recently discovered by the cops. Before her disappearance Marcia was already in the headlines, as she was supposedly informing the cops about the truth of who was behind many New York massage parlors. Now, before she could spill the beans, she’s dead.

After breaking a dinner date with his girlfriend, the busty blonde TV newsreporter Vivian Power, Hawkins goes to The Wild West parlor in lower Manhattan with Joe Rainey, a Sun photographer notorious for getting into scruffles. The place turns out to be an ultramod pleasure palace, with breathtaking young women prancing around in revealing western costumes – unlike Len Levinson's more realistic Without Mercy, the masseuses in Body Rub are all young, well-built, and very into their work. In that respect the novel is more along the lines of Massage Parlor.

Only after arriving at the parlor does Hawkins realize his self-imposed “no sex” clause isn’t going to pan out. The women are just too hot and too nude, and after a few drinks in the lounge he’s already picked out the one for him: a petite blonde with a killer bod who sits there sewing(!?), wearing “grandma glasses!” This is Kathy, who as you’d expect is a good-natured, innocent young gal who just recently came to New York – and of course is already working in a massage parlor. Before he can go off in private with her, though, Hawkins watches another of the masseuses dance, and as she strips down to the skin he sees that she wears a devil-faced medallion on her waist, hanging right above her crotch, and the sight of it puts Hawkins in a momentary hypnosis.

Unlike The Savage Women, Body Rub doesn’t shirk on the sex scenes; Andrews serves up a hot and heavy one with Hawkins and Kathy that spares no details. But to continue with the goofy tone of the novel, the two fall into instant love after their mutual climaxes! The happy sentiments don’t last, because shortly thereafter Hawkins and Rainey discover a corpse in the parlor’s hot tub; floating there, her throat slashed, is another masseuse. Andrews here works in a locked room murder mystery, but it’s eventually lost in the novel’s frantic shuffle.

Things get even stranger when Rainey immediately thereafter disappears, he too down in the hot tub room (to take photos) while Hawkins has everyone else gathered together up in the lounge. When Hawkins discovers his pal is gone, he returns to the lounge to find everyone else has fled into the night, including his “new love” Kathy. Instead of calling the cops, Hawkins just takes off, phones 911, and goes back to the Sun offices, where he eventually receives a call from Kathy, who apologizes for deserting him.

Andrews ends each chapter with a cliffhanger, and the dumbest comes here, with Kathy and Hawkins going to bed together, and being woken up a few hours later by “a strange beeping”…that turns out to be Hawkins’s damn pager! Off Hawkins goes again – the novel by the way occurs over two frantic days – to meet up with yet another massage parlor masseuse, one who wants to meet with Hawkins at this ungodly hour to tell him the truth about Marcia’s death. Hawkins arrives just in time to see the girl get gunned down by a triggerman in a speeding car; clutched in the dead girl’s hand Hawkins finds the name of another parlor, The Love Rub, as well as a ring with that devil face on it. For no reason at all, Hawkins slips the ring on his own finger.

The Love Rub turns out to be a slum more in line with what these New York massage parlors were supposedly really like – an old lady at the front desk, dispirited men in the grungy waiting room, even more dispirited women who come out to greet them. Here Hawkins learns that his devil-faced ring is a sign of “The Society,” and wearing it apparently affords him extra privileges at these places. But after he’s stripped down in a cube with a hardbitten Love Rub masseuse – one he has definitely decided he won’t be having sex with – Hawkins is confronted by a “tall man” in a black coat, hat, and a scar on his face. This is the same man previously seen at the Wild West, who went into the hot tub with the girl before she died, but never came back out.

A nude Hawkins escapes, setting off a chase scene that goes all the way back to the Sun offices, where Hawkins gets hold of his gym clothes, left behind in his locker (a humorous scene which sees a gay staffer bringing the clothes to Hawkins, out in his car, and trying to get a good look at him), and then discovers that the tall man has followed him here as well. Andrews must’ve worked in a newspaper office or at least toured one, as Hawkins’s escape through the bowels of the place seems cut from reality, as he dodges the tall man on the noisy floor of the printing room, nearly getting killed by the thrashing machinery in the process. 

Covered in newsprint ink, Hawkins hops in his “custom-built red Lotus” and takes off, eventually getting chased by the cops on the snow-filled streets of early-morning Manhattan. The cops you see are after Hawkins too, his having run from two murder scenes. After crashing into a bank, Hawkins escapes on foot to Kathy’s conveniently-nearby apartment, only to discover that she too is now missing. His priorities in order, Hawkins takes a leisurely bath, dons a new set of clothes from the large assortment of men’s clothing left behind in her apartment(!), and takes some money from Kathy’s left-behind purse(!!).

As mentioned the novel works like a cliffhanger, with our hero dashing from one bizarre event to the next, slowly putting together clues. Around the midway point it becomes clear that Andrews is not going to be able to tie all the strings together; in fact, the final twenty or so pages are composed of nothing but expository dialog, detailing everything that happened and why! But at any rate, getting there is at least fun, with our author comfortably doling out background detail on the harried life of a newspaper reporter. He also doesn’t hold back on the sex and drugs angle; the only thing really missing is the violent action.

Eventually Hawkins pieces it together that “The Society” is a Satanic cult founded by Thomas Maloney, famous “acid guru” of the ‘60s, a one-time Ivy League professor who became notorious for his “tune in, drop out” comments. Gee, I wonder who he could be based on? After spending five years in prison for hauling cocaine across the Mexican border, Maloney has refashioned himself as an Anton LaVey type, preaching Satanic sin from his mansion in the posh countryside outside of New York City.

Hawkins discovers all of this after visiting yet another massage parlor: The Experience, one that runs out of an old church. Andrews by the way is a master of dropping hints and clues early in the novel and playing up on them later; Hawkins only visits the Experience because he recalls Kathy having mentioned it as a place where a friend of murdered masseuse Marcia’s once worked. This friend turns out to be another whore, one named Sherry, who happily takes Hawkins to a separate room for a private engagement.

The ‘70s are in full effect as Sherry reveals that Hawkins’s appropriated devil-ring has a coke spoon built within it, and thusly she breaks out a veritable cache of drugs. Hawkins insists he’s just a Jack Daniel’s man, though he does partake of a joint with her – cue another psychedelic scene of hypnosis. But Hawkins comes out of it, ready and raring to go at it with Sherry, even though the previous night he fell in love with another whore, Kathy, who as you’ll recall is missing and no doubt was violently abducted by whoever is chasing after Hawkins himself.

But before they can do the deed, Sherry collapses…mere moments after drinking the Jack Daniel’s that was brought for Hawkins! Yet another masseuse with answers to the puzzle now dead, Hawkins once again runs off. The novel barrels into the homestretch as Hawkins takes a train for upstate New York, zeroing in on the opulent domain of Thomas Maloney. Coincidence abounds throughout the novel, and bumming around at a bar Hawkins just happens to meet a cute young gal who herself is headed for the mansion – because, conveniently enough, a Mass is about to take place. And you won’t be surprised to know that the girl is super-eager to take Hawkins along with her.

The ensuing Black Mass is full-on Satanic Sleaze, though nothing as outrageous as that in The Mind Masters #2: Shamballah. But Hawkins is promptly exposed as an interloper, shambling around in a black robe with the others with no idea what he’s supposed to do. Here ensues the first of the expository info-dumps that make up the “climax,” with Maloney granting Hawkins “his final interview” – Hawkins’s, that is, as Maloney plans to kill him. Maloney unveils a long backstory about how he came to start the Society Of Life and how he’s branching out into massage parlors as a way to further insinuate himself into society. The murdered masseuses all were privy to information that could’ve undone his plans, so they had to die.

Actually the finale is just explanation after explanation – Hawkins is saved by the tall man, of all people, who identifies himself as a Fed, but Hawkins beats the shit out of him, and we don’t learn why until the endless dialog in the ensuing chapter. Hawkins, meeting the press at Kathy’s big art show (she’s quit being a masseuse, having just sold her first few paintings before meeting Hawkins), unfolds the tale that the tall man was a mobster. And Kathy and Rainey are also here at the art show, each relating their own stories of how they were abducted by mobsters and kept locked up until just a few hours before, having been saved by the cops following leads Hawkins provided!

Obviously our author is having fun with his sordid and sleazy tale – I mean, Hawkins’s girlfriend Vivian Power doesn’t even appear until the final few pages, where she announces at the art show that she’s now engaged to Hawkins’s editor! And Hawkins, flustered for a moment, starts to mentally compare Vivian to Kathy, realizing that in reality Vivian’s a “controlling bitch” and etc – just total character assassination, even though Vivian’s just shown up in the novel. But anyway all this serves to make Hawkins realize how much he loves Kathy, and how she loves him to; Andrews ends on a further goofy note, with the revelation that, every once in a while, Kathy and Hawkins will still play “masseuse and client” in the comfort of Hawkins’s swank penthouse apartment.

Writing-wise, the novel is better than it has any right to be; as mentioned Andrews has a particular gift for dropping seemingly-irrelevant details and then later picking up on them. He also captures that ‘70s vibe I so enjoy, from the massage parlor d├ęcor to the outrageous clothing his characters wear, though take note that Body Rub takes place in that era when the cool, funky-freaky early to mid 1970s was changing into the bland, disco-dancing late 1970s; in fact, Hawkins several times mentions that disco music is playing in various party scenes.

I assumed “Mark Andrews” was just a house name, given the handful of paperback originals Leisure published under this name in such a short span of time. To give further credence to this assumption, Body Rub is copyright Leisure. But I have another Mark Andrews novel, The Return Of Jack The Ripper, from 1977 (which I’ll soon read), and it’s copyright Mark Andrews, so who knows, maybe it was a real person.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Vigilante #1: New York: An Eye For An Eye

The Vigilante #1: New York: An Eye For An Eye, by V.J. Santiago
November, 1975  Pinnacle Books

How could you not want to read something that’s “More vengeful than Death Wish!?” Starting off a six-volume series copyright book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, An Eye For An Eye serves as the origin story for Joe “The Vigilante” Madden, and for the most part comes off like a less sadistic take on Bronson: Blind Rage. “V.J. Santiago” is our good friend Robert Lory.

This is not an action-packed tale, and Lory goes for the same sort of introspective tone as Jon Messman in the Revenger series, documenting in detail how a 44 year-old New Yorker goes from a happily-married professional engineer to a gun-toting vigilante in just a few short days. To do so Lory first takes us through an average day for Madden, who we learn is a regular kind of guy, a veteran of the Korean War who now works for a well-respected engineering corporation based in New York.

After dealing with the Grossman brothers, a pair of clients flown in from Los Angeles who make the obnoxious and demanding clients in Bewitched seem kind, Madden goes out with his wife, Sara. Lory pulls an unusual move here, by having the couple only have been married for three months. This is Madden’s second marriage, his first ending in divorce, and Sara, a fashion designer, is still in her 20s. Anyway I say it’s unusual because you know something’s about to happen to Sara, but at the same time you wonder why Lory didn’t give them more of a history together – I mean, three months? I’ve got underwear older than that. (Wait, wrong joke.)

After visiting Sara’s sister and brother-in-law at their home well into the night, Madden and Sara hop a train back to Manhattan. But it’s nighttime, the time of “the animals,” as Madden soon thinks of them; the novel is redolent with the crime-ridden vibe of the era, with the city practically a ghost town as soon as the sun sets, with armed criminals crawling out of the sewers like veritable C.H.U.D.s. And they are all minorities, with An Eye For An Eye coming off like Army Of Devils and Hijacking Manhattan.

Four black youths accost the couple on the subway, and as Madden tries to fight one of them off, another comes in and starts knifing Sara. Lory never lets us know precisely what the poor lady endures, but when Madden comes to, having been knocked out, she’s dead and her face has been mutilated. Lory very well captures the ensuing numbed shock and disbelief that grips Madden as he tries to understand what his life will be like now that his wife is no longer there to share it with him.

No doubt it’s this part of the story that made Lory only have the two married for a few months, as it seems just enough time for it to be believable that Madden undergoes his transformation into a vigilante; had they been married longer, like a decade or so, it would be easy to imagine Madden becoming a catatonic wreck, too engulfed in grief to do much of anything – and also, importantly, there’d likely be kids by that point. Madden and Sara had no children, so again Madden has no concerns on that front when, as his grief slowly lessens, he finds himself more enraged at “the animals.”

After forging a sort of bond with Sergeant Joe Delancy of the NYPD, a cop whose own fiance was murdered years before, Madden also deals with Sara’s sister, who rightly questions where Madden gets off on making important decisions about Sara’s funeral and etc, given how short of a time Madden even knew her. Meanwhile Madden gets drunker and drunker, culminating in a night, just two days after Sara’s murder, where he stumbles out into the city again. This time he’s mugged and slashed by a knife, which leaves a jagged scar running across his face. And they steal his wedding ring! Clearly the guy’s not having a good week.

Madden lays off the drinks and prepares himself for a night of payback. He looks for weapons in his apartment, deciding at great length on a butcher knife. He even devises a Travis Bickle-style holster for it, which he hides in his jacket arm. Lory again keeps it all realistic, with Madden playing it up as a simpering drunk to attract his prey. And he finds them; first he knifes one would-be mugger to death, then the next night, while hunting in the subways, he kills a black mugger who pulls a .38 revolver on him. Only after killing the guy does Madden realize he’s just been handed a gift, and rushes back to retrieve the gun, which he almost threw away.

Now armed with a .38, which he supplies with ammo through various underworld contacts (finding out how to do such things via sly questions to Sgt. Delancy), Madden is truly prepared to dish out some payback. Only here in the homestretch does the action really ramp up, with a trenchcoated Joe Madden lurking about the most dangerous areas of nighttime New York, blowing away would-be rapists and muggers. He lives up to the cover slogans, too, just outright killing anyone he comes up against, no mercy given.

As mentioned above the novel really plays on the class and race divide; when Madden refers to “the animals,” nine times out of ten he’s referring to blacks. He also relishes the fact that the New Yorkers of the daylight are “smarter than the animals,” and it seems pretty clear that here too he has race in mind. His hate becomes all-encompassing; when Sara’s sister implores Madden to consider giving Sara’s clothes to goodwill instead of incinerating them, Madden refuses, adamant that “they” will never get anything of Sara’s. In his hate he now lumps all underprivileged into the same category, “the animals,” and it’s a very unsettling moment.

The highlight of the novel comes at the very end, with Madden stalking Central Park. Lory opens the section from the perspective of a young black girl who rushes, despite the danger, through the Park to get to a college lecture. She is attacked by four black youths who openly discuss raping and killing her; the fourth youth, a girl, announces that she too will take part in the rape! Madden arrives on the scene just in time, .38 blasting, and again shows no mercy. In fact, Lory makes it clear that he starts to enjoy his work, and one could easily read the novel and come away with the impression that Madden himself is one of “the animals.”

The key to enjoying An Eye For An Eye is not to approach it as a pulp crime novel like The Sharpshooter or The Marksman, but moreso as a “regular” sort of novel, one that was just packaged as a Pinnacle paperback with a photo cover of some dude with a gun. Lory never once descends into pulp and treats everything seriously, and my guess is the novel must be close to Brian Garfield’s original Death Wish in this regard – I’m not sure, because I’ve never read the novel, and the first Death Wish film is the only one of the series I’ve never seen, though it’s probably the best.

The novel, despite the introspective tone, moves at a fast pace, at least so far as events in Madden’s world go. An Eye For An Eye occurs over a single week, with Madden prepared to fly to Los Angeles (to handle the Grossman brothers account) in the end – the owner of his company insists that Madden will “feel better” if he gets back to work, and Madden agrees. Personally I think that’s one callous company, but at any rate it serves to move us on to the next installment, where Madden continues his vigilante war in LA.

In his 2007 interview with Justin Marriott in The Paperback Fanatic #4, Lory related the very funny story of how he became “V.J. Santiago:”

About the pen name: Pinnacle wanted one because the Robert Lory name was associated with vampires and such. I was still thinking about one after I’d sent the manuscript to Lyle. One afternoon my office telephone rings and it’s someone asking for V.J. Santiago. Wrong number, I say. “No, right number, Bob,” Lyle says, taking his handkerchief from his phone. Why V.J. Santiago, I ask. Answer: “The publisher figured that because you’re knocking off so many ethnics, you’d better be one.”

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Deadly Spring

The Deadly Spring, by J.C. Conaway
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

J.C. Conaway, the man who as “Jake Quinn” gave the world the Shannon series, returns to Leisure Books under his own name and delivers a trashy horror-mystery hybrid that comes off like a proto-version of William W. Johnstone’s The Nursery. Unlike the Shannon books, stuff actually happens here, and it’s all pretty wild and sleazy.

Taking place right after the Bicentennial weekend of July 4th, 1976, The Deadly Spring is set in Cheat Holler, West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. I found this pretty interesting, given that I grew up maybe an hour or so from this area, and one of my earliest memories is of the Bicentennial; I guess I was about a year and a half old at the time. The West Virginia town I grew up in sure as hell was smaller than Cheat Holler, which despite being described as nowhereseville has a lot of people living in it, doing a lot of interesting things. The place I grew up in was lucky to have an ice cream stand.

Conaway fills the 219 pages of the book with big print, and the story moves quickly. He juggles a large amount of characters with ease. Again, it’s all a definite step above the Shannon novels, which for the most part were lethargic. Missing though from those novels is the ultra-sleaze factor, with as we’ll recall Shannon getting it on in explicit detail in his mirror-lined bedroom. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of ultra-sleaze in The Deadly Spring, but for the most part Conaway goes for more of a kinky, macabre sort of approach. The novel is also filled with capably-handled dark humor.

There are a lot of characters on display, but the the main protagonists would be Ben Tyler, a hunky surveyor who contracts for the military base in town, and Amy Forrester, his hotbod girlfriend, who supports herself and her toddler son Buddy by writing trashy novels (her latest being a “sexy historical” in the vein of The Savage Sands). They’re shacking up in Amy’s house, which is right across from the Starlight Motel (owned by white trash Fred and Leona Pilzer) and the town gas station (owned by Ketchy Davis and his man-hungry wife, JoAnne).

The day after the July 4th celeberation, Cheat Holler is hit by a series of increasingly-destructive earthquakes. The first 100+ pages of the novel are moreso about the quakes and the chaos they create, rather than what the back cover claims the novel is about: namely, a psychoactive drug getting into the town water supply and making everyone go nuts. This element doesn’t appear until the final quarter, and it arises from the military base in town, which is overseen by Colonel Alexander Templeton, a stickler for duty who happens to be in lust with half of the men under his command.

The base is more of a research center, most of it housed underground, where army chemists are concocting various nerve agents. One of them is HT-105, which acts like LSD but unleashes a person’s id. Due to the damage of the earthquakes (and Templeton’s mismanagement of affairs) the vault that holds HT-105 suffers a large crack, with the liquid agent slowly filtering down into the soil and into the river channel that runs beneath the base, eventually ending up in the town’s water supply.

Before all this happens, though, Conaway spends more time setting up his various characters, showing how each and every one of them is a ticking time bomb. There’s a sergeant who has night guard duty at the base (posted there because Templeton resents that the good-looking guy is married), who is certain his wife is having an affair; a young woman named Willadene who suppresses her lustful thoughts due to her overbearing, abusively Christian mother; a funeral home director who is currently tasked with perparing the body of a once-notorious prostitute, whose high-falutin daughter has married into wealth and standing; a theater producer who suffers with a headstrong actress from out of town; a spinster who runs the town’s summer school program; and a pair of old high school friends who run The Joint, a bar out on Cheat Lake. 

There’s also Martin Forrester, Amy’s obsessed ex-husband, who manages the local Mountain Creek beer factory and can’t let his ex-wife go. This leads to a few confrontations between Ben and Martin, before the HT-105 even gets out, in particular their first meeting, which sees the two men getting into a protracted brawl outside of Amy’s house. Conaway really lights the fuse on this situation, with the reader anticipating a huge blowup once the drug gets out. Luckily, this is one of the few subplots Conaway bothers to wrap up at the very end of the novel.

Instead, once the drug gets out Conaway goes into an obvious riffing mode, just whittling down his large cast of characters in one crazy situation after another. Here the novel comes off a lot like Johnstone’s The Nursery, though only slightly less perverted. Like Johnstone, the suppressions unleashed among the populace via the drug are mostly sexual in nature, though not all of them. He even goes one better than Johnstone with the spinster’s class of kids going nuts during a tea party, a darkly comedic sequence which first has them tearing up the teacher’s valued first edition of Alice in Wonderland and then turning the spinster into a human pinata.

The drug’s first victim is the cuckolded guard; another darkly humorous scene that has him going home on a whim to find his wife in bed with a fellow guard from the base. The subplot with the funeral home is also grotesquely humorous, with the funeral director making up the old lady’s corpse to look like the hooker she once was. Willadene also gets her share of the lurid fun, first taking bloody vengeance on her domineering mother and then satiating her decades-suppressed lust with various men. Meanwhile, Col. Templeton goes nuts and sodomizes one of his men at gunpoint, blowing the guy’s head off at the, uh, climactic moment.

But here’s the thing: as the novel seems to be moving toward an insane finale, with practically every character converging on The Joint, to skinny dip in the drug-laced Cheat Lake…the novel just ends!! We have no idea what the outcome is of the HT-105 contamination, or indeed what becomes of the many surviving characters. Instead, Conaway focuses more on Ben coming upon the ruins of the base and helping the soldiers free the lead chemist, who was locked in the vault by Col. Templeton.

After this, Ben goes home to find a drug-crazed Martin Forrester again trying to attack his wife. Ben subdues him and ties him up, then calls the sheriff to come get him. This taken care of, Ben proposes to Amy, cracks open a beer, and chuckles that the Mountain Creek beer factory will probably have to shut down for a while, given that its water comes from drug-laced Cheat Lake! The End!! Obviously Conaway, in true pulp hack fashion, hit his word count and said “fuck it.” I checked to see if maybe pages were stuck together or missing, but no – the novel just ends at this arbitrary point, with even a few pages afterwards of advertisements for other Leisure books.

Despite the awkward and abrupt end, The Deadly Spring is still an enjoyable read, with a large cast of messed-up characters, and Conaway proves himself a master at setting up and paying off darkly humorous incidents. There are a lot of twisted happenings afoot, particularly of a perverse nature, but Conaway doesn’t really play up on the graphic details, as Johnstone did in his similar (but superior) novel. Also, the novel is riddled with typos, as is customary for a Leisure publication, the funniest being when, instead of “Amy gathered the child into her arms,” it says “Amy fathered the child into her arms.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary

The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary, by Brad Latham
September, 1981  Warner Books

Part of Warner’s short-lived Men Of Action line, The Hook ran for five volumes, and was unlike the other series in the line (ie Ninja Master) in that it was a period piece about an insurance investigator. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook has more in common with the hardboiled pulp of the 1930s, only with much more explicit sex. Seriously, this novel is so sex-focused that the first-page blurb is a sex scene.

The series is set in 1938, and Brad Latham (apparently in reality David Schow) really captures the period detail. Not only does he grace his colorful set of characters with dialog that appears to come right of a Bogart movie, but he also gives them equally-colorful names: Muffy Dearborn, Two-Scar Toomey, Jock Bunche, Jabber-Jabber Jacoby, Stymie the Fence, Jimbo Brannigan, etc. But while the dialog, names, and period details are colorful, plotwise the novel isn’t all that much.

Our hero, William “The Hook” Lockwood, works as an insurance investigator for Transatlantic Underwriters, and is currently tasked with locating torch singer Muffy Dearborn’s reportedly-stolen diamonds, which are worth fifty thousand dollars. Lockwood (we’ll just go ahead and assume he’s the uncle of Hugh Lockwood, one of the protagonists of Search) got his nickname from his boxing career; he’s 38, and fought in WWI. Now he solves the big cases for Transatlantic, rolling around New York City in a supercharged Cord.

Lockwood’s already on the case as the novel opens, heading into a Manhattan nightclub to catch Muffy Dearborn’s debut performance. The story of her jewels being stolen was leaked into the papers via Walter Winchell’s gossip column, and Lockwood has a hunch the story was leaked on purpose. He’s sure there’s more to the case than a simple theft. A plethora of lowlifes have assembled for the performance, and Schow introduces us to our entire cast, all of whom are conveniently gathered here in the opening pages.

Jock Bunche, Muffy’s awesomely-named former paramour, starts catcalling her during her opening number, and a huge fight breaks out. Here Lockwood unleashes some of his boxing skills, though he’s no superhuman. He gets some help from Raff Spencer, a hulking dandy who speaks with an affected British accent despite being American, and a WWI vet himself; he’s Muffy’s current paramour. Lockwood also runs afoul of Two-Scar Toomey, so named due to the scar running across his face, and the gangster boss goes to the top of his suspects list.

Lockwood’s detecting skills are pretty lame; he spends the entire novel just sort of wandering around New York, chasing one wild goose after another. Schow peppers the novel with several action scenes, many of them much overdone, in particular an endless, endless sequence midway through in which Lockwood is hauled off by a group of Toomey’s men and is able to talk them into a boxing match. A desperate Lockwood, unarmed and riding with the men who plan to kill him, suspects this is his only chance to live, but what could be a taut scene goes on way too long, with Lockwood getting beaten nearly as much as he gives the beatings. To make it all worse, the entire scene is rendered moot when Raff conveniently shows up to save him.

Otherwise we have car chases, like one Lockwood gets in early in the book, as well as a handful of gun fights. Lockwood also has no compunction about blowing people away, and Schow goes for the right approach with not having Lockwood bound by any laws. He has a friendly rapport with titan-sized Jimbo Brannigan, tough beat cop who runs this part of the city, and Brannigan usually just shows up in the aftermath of Lockwood’s latest fight and makes a joke. Brannigan also shows up to save Lockwood several times; our hero is actually saved from certain death several times in the novel.

While it’s all pretty mundane, despite the colorful setting and character names, one thing that separates The Gilded Canary from its peers is the ramped-up sex scenes. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook is one of the most sexually-explicit men’s adventure series ever, with Lockwood getting it on in super-graphic detail with Stephanie, Muffy Dearborn’s hotstuff French maid, as well as, expectedly, Muffy herself, who you won’t be surprised to know is a blonde goddess among women. The first-page blurb is just a hint of what’s in store for the reader:

Stephanie comes into it in what amounts to a shoehorning into the narrative, just showing up at Lockwood’s doorstep and telling her she’s moving in with him to “protect” him. Her hazy story has it that she once knew a man similar to Lockwood, back in France, and he ended up dead, and Stephanie now feels something certain is about to happen to Lockwood unless she’s there to watch him. It’s all obviously bullshit, but Lockwood lets her move in and decides to keep an eye on her, even though he knows she’s no doubt up to something.

The plot, concerning Muffy’s missing jewels, is itself kind of bland, and you wish there had been a more fantastic or at least memorable storyline for this first volume. But somehow Lockwood runs into an assortment of mobsters in his investigation, most notably Widwer “One-Eye” Levinsky, who wears a glass eye and puts Lockwood temporarily in the hospital early in the book, ambushing him and beating him unmerciful, as the Jerky Boys would say.

Muffy herself is a talentless shrew who worries more over her public image and who treats everyone with disdain, particularly Lockwood; that is, until she decides to become interested in him. Schow does a pretty good job of presenting Muffy as a calculating harpy with no redeeming features, and when Lockwood has the expected sex scene with her he at least has the dignity to be ashamed with himself. Mostly because he’s certain she had something to do with the theft.

In a scheme that turns out to be as overly-complicated as the one in Trouble Is My Business, Lockwood finally deduces who was behind the theft. It’s so complicated that, like a regular Banacek, Lockwood has to deliver expository dialog explaining it all for around twenty pages or so while everyone sits around and gapes at his intelligence. Schow does end it all with a bang, though, with the outed villains getting the jump on Lockwood, leading into a final-pages gunfight.

But still, the novel is just sluggish, and took longer to read than it should’ve. The mystery is too mundane to justify the book’s length, and there are too many instances in which Lockwood just stands around and wonders what lead to follow next. But then, this is just the first volume, so it could just be a temporary misfire before Schow finds his footing with the next four volumes.