Monday, September 29, 2014

Bronson: Streets Of Blood (aka Bronson #2)

Bronson: Streets Of Blood, by Philip Rawls
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

Not picking up from the incredible first volume, Bronson: Streets Of Blood has nothing to do with Bronson: Blind Rage and indeed doesn’t even feature the same protagonist, even though this one also happens to be named Richard Bronson. But then, I knew that going in, as “Philip Rawls” this time is in reality Len Levinson, who told me a long time ago that he had never even heard of Blind Rage, let alone read it.

In fact, I mentioned this Bronson novel the first time I spoke to Len on the phone. His reaction was a slight pause and then, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.” In some ways, Streets Of Blood is like the fourth Sharpshooter installment Len never wrote, and sometimes picks up from elements in Headcrusher. This is mostly in the nihilistic feel of the protagonist, who knows his days are numbered, but vows to keep killing scum no matter what.

Now, Streets Of Blood might have a nihilistic feel, but it’s nowhere as caustic, violent, or sadistic as the first volume of this “series.” I rank Blind Rage as one of the best ‘70s pulp crime novels I’ve ever read, mostly due to its insane vibe, in its “fight fire with fire” mentality. Of all the revenge novels I’ve read, I think it best captures how a man could be pushed to insane lengths after his family has been murdered, and how the man himself could become even more murderous than the scum he’s hunting.

Len’s Richard Bronson is grim and dour, but not insane. Well, comparitively speaking so far as the previous novel’s Richard Bronson went. Len’s Bronson moved to NYC two years ago, after his wife and two kids were murdered. He owns his own engineering firm and lives in a penthouse suite in Manhattan, but at night he goes out and kills muggers and rapists. Bronson has been celibate since his wife was killed two years before (the novel clearly takes place in 1974, as October, 1972 is often mentioned as the date in which his family was killed).

This celibacy causes some issues with Bronson’s hotstuff next door neighor, Natalie Taylor, who happens to be a model. She starts hitting on Bronson as soon as she’s introduced into the narrative, practically demanding he come next door for some hot sex. Bronson constantly puts her down, and poor Natalie has to go back to her apartment to bake banana bread in sublimation and pine over Bronson, the first “real man” she’s met in the city in years.

There isn’t much action per se in the novel; Bronson goes out in his trenchcoat, armed with a Browning with silencer, and guns down muggers and rapists. He isn’t very smart about his methods, though, as within the first several pages he’s already been figured out by a cop. This is Detective Ronald Jenkins, who responds to a call about a shooting in Central Park, and happens to see Bronson walking out of there. He stops him and gets his business card in case further questioning arises, and when the witness, a girl who was almost raped before Bronson descended upon the scene, gives Jenkins her description of her rescuer, Jenkins immediately realizes it was Bronson.

Len goes an unexpected route with this, having Jenkins and his boss Lt. Levine pondering if they should bring Bronson in or let him continue his private war – just as long as he never harms the innocent. Meanwhile Bronson continues to kill, while getting closer to Natalie, but he runs afoul of her when he tries to get her to lie for him, in case increasingly-nosy Jenkins ever tries to check Bronson’s whereabouts. It all comes down with Natalie pissed at Bronson; when she demands Bronson tell him what exactly he’s trying to get her to cover for him for, he lies that he was having an affair with a client’s wife on the night in question.

Midway through the novel stops being a Death Wish riff and becomes that fourth Sharpshooter novel Len never wrote. Bronson kills a couple punks, one of whom happens to be the nephew of Big Frank Scarletti, a Mafia boss who runs his mini-empire from a bar. The novel becomes more of an anti-Mafia pulp crime deal, with Scarletti sending hitmen after Bronson, and Bronson taking them out, after which he vows to kill Scarletti himself.

Meanwhile Jenkins has fully come over to Bronson’s side, protecting him. In a way Jenkins is a lot like Len’s version of Ryker, in The Terrorists, a tough cop who isn’t dirty but doesn’t mind bending the rules to see justice done. For example, there’s a goofy part where Bronson shoots down a Mafia torpedo and demands to talk to Jenkins when the cops arrive on the scene; Jenkins merely sets up and falsely backdates a gun permit for Bronson and takes responsibility for “forgetting” to renew it. Jenkins even teams up with Bronson in the finale, both of them wanting to see Scarpetti dead.

Also, Natalie Jones comes back over to Bronson’s side; she inadvertently saves him from that mob torpedo, seeing the hitman raise his gun at Bronson while he’s walking down the street, and though she never does find out for sure that Bronson is the mysterious crime fighter the news is always talking about, she does find out that he was lying about having an affair. Thusly she forgives him, leading up to one of the more explicit sex scenes I’ve yet read in one of Len’s novels, complete with Natalie’s endearing request, “I want you to come inside me.”

The finale again calls back to The Sharpshooter, with Bronson (who in Len’s version is a former ‘Nam hero) breaking out a sniper rifle like a regular Johnny Rock and lying in ambush with Jenkins. And by the way our hero cop also sees some bedroom shenanigans, despite being happily married, going undercover in the Scarpetti-owned bar and scoring with the busty, “nymphomaniac” bartender there, who ends up falling in love with him. But all such subplots are obliterated by the finale, which has Bronson and Jenkins blowing away Scarpetti and goons from afar, after which Bronson can happily continue with his war on the streets. 

Wrapping up, I can sort of see why Len had pretty much forgotten Streets Of Blood when I spoke to him on the phone. While it’s entertaining and fun, it lacks any truly outrageous or unforgettable moments. It does though have that “Levinson Element” I enjoy, with characters who seem to exist off of the page, and I like how he didn’t waste the reader’s time with Detective Jenkins trying to bring in Bronson. It was a lot more interesting and unexpected to have the two team up.

I didn’t pester Len to write up a piece on this one, mostly because at the time I was writing this review he was on vacation in New York, and also because he already wrote a piece on it for Jack Badelaire’s Post Modern Pulps blog.

And I’d still love to know who wrote Bronson: Blind Rage!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Marksman #8: Stone Killer

The Marksman #8: Stone Killer, by Frank Scarpetta
January, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

Russell Smith returns for another crazy and sick volume of The Marksman, one which again is part of the continuity Smith developed for his installments but which was broken up by editor Peter McCurtin. Stone Killer proves out a theory I had a while back that The Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath was in fact another “lost” Marksman novel – and in fact that it took place right before Stone Killer.

As we’ll recall, that Sharpshooter novel featured “Johnny Rock” in the hamlet of Xenia, New York, sadistically murdering various mobsters before hurrying to JFK airport to catch a flight to Paris. Not only does Stone Killer open with “hero” Philip Magellan on a flight to Paris, but later in the book he actually reflects back on “his adventures in Xenia, New York” (not to mention also reflecting on his weird war in New Jersey, in the almighty Sharpshooter #3: Blood Bath).

So then one can see, like a regular Q source, the hidden, continuous storyline Russell Smith carefully worked out in his Marksman novels, all of which was lost when either McCurtin or the publisher haphazardly changed his manuscripts into installments of The Sharpshooter. It appears to me that the correct reading order for Smith’s storyline would actually be: Marksman #1: Vendetta, Sharpshooter #3: Blood Bath, Marksman #3: Kill Them All, Marksman #5: Headhunter, Sharpshooter #2: Blood Oath, and Marksman #8: Stone Killer.  Doutbless Sharpshooter #6: Muzzle Blast will eventually be uncovered as another part of the continuous storyline.

In the first few pages Magellan is even talking about Terri White, ie the hippie girl who practically served as a co-star in Kill Them All and Headhunter, before being carelessly removed from the narrative in the McCurtin-penned Marksman #6: Death To The Mafia, who opened his book with the mention that Terri was staying with some “friends” of Magellan. Despite which, Terri once again returns to the narrative here, and you kind of feel bad for author Smith, whose storyline was obliterated by careless management that was more interested in getting product out quickly.

Smith opens the novel on a scene of horror, as Magellan’s flight encounters horrific weather conditions during the arrival into Paris. It’s a flight from hell, and Smith keeps writing about it over and over, even after Magellan has walked inside the terminal. Smith also amps up the gross-out material, with copious description of the vomit-laden airliner cabin. But anyhoo, Magellan happened to be on a flight filled with nuns, on their way from New York to Paris and thence Rome for some nun thing, and one of them, unbeknownst to Magellan, is in fact an undercover mobster.

Any fears of Magellan being ambushed and killed are quickly evaporated; due to the stupidty of the mob, another mainstay in Smith’s installments, Magellan without even meaning to discovers that he’s being tailed. In fact, he even sees them checking into his very hotel on the outskirts of Paris. Here the Terri White mentions begin, as we are informed that she loved this hotel, which is more known for the hookers that frequent it. The concierge even helpfully informs Magellan of the back entrance, which runs through a courtyard, and the “stone tool house” there. If you know Russell Smith’s Magellan, you know what that tool house will soon be used for.

Getting the scoop on the local mob from an American expatriate (who makes his living as a children’s book writer) named Tim Talus, Magellan instantly sets his sights on Hilda Raus, an attractive blonde dominatrix-type from Germany who serves as a facilitator for the Parisian mob. People come to her when they have certain sadomasochistic needs, and Hilda hooks them up with the proper dominatrix or what-have-you. Magellan, who of course notes the woman’s beauty, merely goes over to her and tells her to come with him immediately or he’ll kill her!

And sure enough, before she knows it Hilda is stripped (she thinks she’s going to be raped by Magellan, the thought of which isn’t very unappealing to her!) and tossed in that stone tool house. Using Hilda’s little black book, Magellan begins his usual war of sadism upon the Parisian Mafia. His first victim he kills with a pistol butt to the head, and then per the usual Smith insanity, saws the bastard’s head off…and puts the “skull” in the tool house with Hilda, complete with a candle atop it! Yes, it’s all just like the ghastly stuff from Blood Bath, only with more of a macabre touch.

Telling Hilda she “needs company,” Magellan then goes back to his hotel and, again per Smith’s usual motif, drugs and strips the pretty young girl who also tailed him secretly from New York. She too is tossed inside the tool house, Magellan as usual building up a collection of nude captives. For once though the captives get free, though Smith does nothing with this…Magellan just comes back one day to find them gone, including the severed head (which is constantly referred to as a “skull”), and he’s like, “huh, how about that.” He suspects the hotel’s concierge is behind it, but the novel is so clearly banged out by an author hurrying to reach his deadline that it’s not really explained.

In fact, Stone Killer exhibits even less of a hold on reality than others in the Russell Smith canon. Despite knowing Magellan is here and killing their comrades, the Parisian mobsters still drag their heels and discuss “capturing” him, or “waiting” to kill him, and they go about it in the most laughably-avoidable ways possible. And Hilda Rau, despite escaping Magellan, just waltzes right back into a bar she knows he frequents, and gets captured again!

Smith develops a very unsettling dynamic between these two. Magellan constantly obsesses over Hilda’s boyfriend, circus owner/mob chieftan Dante Monza, who runs a circus out of Monaco. Hilda was a lion tamer with the circus, and Magellan in Monza’s Paris apartment finds framed photos of a nude Hilda holding a whip, and later he finds photos of Hilda and Monza nude together, with Smith even going to the lenght of mentioning how Monza is “more than adequately equipped.” Not that it’s outright stated, but there’s this weird vibe that Magellan wants Hilda but is stymied by the fact that she has a boyfriend.(?!)

Muddying up things is the return of Terri White, who by the way was also in Blood Oath, but her name was changed, likely by McCurtin, to “Jane.” As we’ll recall, “Jane” was raped by like ten guys in the denoument of that “Sharpshooter” novel (with the comical outcome of “Johnny Rock” giving her a few aspirin for her troubles), not that it’s mentioned here. She just arrives in the narrative with little setup or explanation, and though she and Magellan make frequent references to their “adventures” in the past, Smith obviously is getting sick of Terri, because she and Magellan are at constant odds this time out.

Hilda is the (half-assed) cause of this; Magellan, for reasons I didn’t catch, decides to stage a big battle at an old stone farmhouse called Four Winds outside of Paris. As is his customary approach, he sadistically murders the stooges who are there waiting to ambush him, then arranges their corpses in garish displays. Despite being in a handful of novels already, Terri only now gets disgusted by this, particularly how Magellan seats two of the corpses inside a large stone hearth, complete with bottles of wine, so that it looks like they’re having dinner.

But Hilda’s there, stripped and bound of course, and starts sowing a wedge between the two. She asks Terri how far she will allow Magellan to push her, and also if Magellan’s yet asked Terri to kill anyone. Apparently this gets the cogs in Terri’s head to start moving, for when Magellan does later ask her to take a gun, she tells him to go to hell. (Magellan’s gentlemanly response is “Get fucked.”) In the climactic gunfight, which for once isn’t hastily rendered, Terri scampers for cover and screams that she wants out of this, once and for all.

Smith in fact puts more focus on this than the actual plot; the Parisian mobsters are perfunctorily disposed of, and more light is shed on Terri and Magellan’s breakup. He gives her some money, jokingly tells her “See you in St. Thomas, mon,” and then waits until she has driven off…and then he “sadistically tortures” Hilda Rau into telling him everything she knows about Dante Monza. Hilda is still alive at novel’s end, which sees an eager Magellan rushing off for Monaco, where he’s quite excited to take on Monza.

The novel is written in the usual Russell Smith style, with abrupt scene-changes, rampant POV-hopping (ie character perspectives changing between paragraphs), and little regard for grammatical or storytelling rules. Shit just happens, with no rhyme or reason, and Magellan is in a more sadistic mood than normal. Given how many volumes this author had churned out in such little time, one can be a little forgiving for this, but still. Here’s hoping the next Smith installment not only picks up from here, but is a little more cohesive.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Hunter #1: Scavenger Kill

The Hunter #1: Scavenger Kill, by Ralph Hayes
January, 1975  Leisure Books

One of the last men’s adventure series Leisure Books published in the ‘70s, The Hunter ran for five volumes and, like other Leisure (and Belmont-Tower) publications, the volume numbers were eventually removed from the titles. Author Ralph Hayes was credited under his own name; Hayes was another of those prolific pulp authors of the era, but this is the first novel of his I’ve read.

Scavenger Kill is very much an opening installment, with hero John Yard deciding here, after much internal probing, to become a justice-seeking vigilante. We learn that Yard was a Major in ‘Nam but went AWOL after he got sick of the unjust war; now he lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he makes his living as a professional hunter who assists and instructs vacationing foreigners who want to see what it’s like to be a “great white hunter.”

Yard’s job seems to suck; in the first pages he’s already in a life or death situation, after his spineless client gutshoots a lioness, which hides in the shrubs. Now Yard has to lure it out, putting his life in danger, because the authorities insist that you finish off your prey. Hayes has no qualms with baldly “foreshadowing” plot developments in the most obvious way possible, with Yard for no reason at all suddenly thinking of his old ‘Nam pal Joe Alger, who now lives in New York.

And guess what? Alger is having some tough times. He and his wife Holly have just had a baby boy, and over the past few weeks have watched in shock as it has developed some very inhuman characteristics. For one it has sprouted hair everywhere, and also it has claws. In an unsettling sequence Holly visits a doctor, only to learn that the baby is in fact not really human, its chromosones having been affected by an experimental pregnancy drug Holly took called Moricidin.

The doctor tells Holly that the drug has been banned in Europe, due to similar issues, and is being removed from the US market as well. Children born from it don’t live long, and never ascend beyond an animalistic state. It’s all really bizarre and off-putting, especially when Hayes further amps up the vibe by having a dazed Holly go home, drown the baby in bathwater, and then jump off the roof of her building!

Unfortunately the rest of Scavenger Kill doesn’t really match these lurid heights. Hayes is very much a “meat and potatoes” sort of writer, not just in how he only tells you what you need to know, but also how he doesn’t really do anything outrageous or unexpected. For that matter, the villain behind Moricidin is a French Canadian billionaire named Maurice Lavalle, and despite being presented as a cunning mastermind, Hayes basically writes him as a loan shark or something, just this overgrown bully who threatens everyone and never once displays the smarts that caused him to be so rich.

Hayes further shows his ease with shoehorning coincidence into the narrative; Yard’s best bud, a Kenyan native named Moses Ngala, just happens to be trying to track down Maurice Lavalle himself, due to the man’s poaching in parts of Kenya and beyond. Moses is a private eye, but once was a cop in Nairobi and received his training in London. Now he goes around calling everyone “old man” and serves as Yard’s partner and voice of reason once Scavenger Kill gets moving.

After visiting a shellshocked Joe Alger in New York, Yard vows to bring Lavalle to justice. The story is presented that since he’s so rich no one can get to him, thus he escapes any criminal charges for Moricidin, etc. Beyond coincidence, Hayes also isn’t shy about forcing action into the novel. Practically ever person Yard meets starts a fight with him, the first instance being when Yard visits Joe’s lawyer, and the friggin lawyer and his buddies attempt to beat the shit out of Yard, for no reason at all!

Back in Kenya, Yard finally decides to take the law in his own hands. Moses finds out and tries to stop him – cue another fight scene, as the best friends trade punches. But Moses ends up going anyway, and after tracking clues in London (where Yard bangs a pretty secretary who works in Lavalle’s London office, though Hayes provides zero details), they split up, with Moses going to Montreal to locate Colley Fowler, Lavalle’s ex-bodyguard. Here develops another endless fistfight where Moses is called racist names by the locals and gets in a fight with them, then finds Colley in a boxing gym and gets in a fight with him.

It all finally leads up to a good action scene, where stocking-masked Yard and Moses pull a nighttime raid on Lavalle’s penthouse in Kingston, Jamaica – the two really cover the globe in this novel – with them blasting shotguns and wasting guards. Unfortunately Hayes, for all the detail he provides on Yard’s big-game guns, pulls an unexpected blunder with Yard outfitting his .357 Colt Python revolver with a silencer. And he does this throughout the novel. Hayes doesn’t exploit the sex aspect much, but he does dole out the gore when bullets start flying, though after messily blowing away the stooges in the penthouse the duo discover that Lavalle has absconded again…this time to Zaire!

Hayes takes us into the homestretch with Yard devising a plan to lure out the reclusive Lavalle – a nice bit of callback to the opening, where he had to lure out the wounded lion. Given the just-introduced information that Lavalle “collects” goldmines, Yard conveniently finds out about one in Zaire that the bastard’s been trying in vain to buy. Long story short, it leads to a good climax in which Lavalle and his entourage are stranded on a ferry as it goes down the river, and Yard and Moses take them down one by one.

I can’t say I loved Scavenger Kill, but eventually I’ll read another installment of the series…because why not?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kill Squad: Dead Wrong (aka Kill Squad #3)

Kill Squad: Dead Wrong, by Mark Cruz
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

Dan Streib was a prolific action series writer in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but this is the first of his books I’ve read. For this five-volume series he was credited as “Mark Cruz,” and it’s interesting that Kill Squad is similar to a two-volume Belmont-Tower series, also published in 1975, titled Death Squad, which was credited to “Frank Colter.” I say interesting because Streib was also Colter.

Anyway, this is one of those times where the publisher appeared to have a different series in mind than the author did. Kill Squad is hyped as a trio of rogue cops who bend the rules to take down crime; vigilantes in all but name. The hyperbolic back cover copy basically presents them as bloodthirsty pursuers of cold justice. However, the actual characters in the novel are just regular cops, who constantly worry about running afoul of the rules!

The “Kill Squad,” thusly named by the press, is comprised of leader Chet Tabor, a Dirty Harry type who comes closest to the publisher’s expectations for the series, constantly getting in fights with “stupid Chief” Jackson over his recklessness. Then there’s Grant Lincoln, a black cop who is stated as being Tabor’s best friend, but the two actually fight throughout the entire novel, and at one point Lincoln even handcuffs Tabor. Finally there’s Maria Alvarez, the hotstuff female cop on the team, who is completely duty-bound and rule-abiding and thus is nothing like the back cover description of the squad; she’s basically a chaperone for the group.

Around this time Manor Books (as well as Belmont-Tower and Leisure) removed the numbers from their series titles, but I’m pretty sure Dead Wrong was the third volume of Kill Squad. Not that it much matters, as Streib makes no attempt at any sort of continuing storyline, and there are no dangling ends that lead you into the next installment. But it does appear that the Squad has only been together for a short while, busting heads and taking names in San Diego.

The plot is a little goofy; Chief Jackson, hoping to keep Tabor and Lincoln from causing more mayhem, assigns them guard duty. The “twenty sexiest women in the world” are coming to San Diego as part of a PR junket, along with the greasy conman who came up with the whole thing, Irving Vernor. Also arriving is Vernor's unexpectedly-attractive young wife, Sabine, as well as a hulking “bodyguard” named Berlet. Tabor is agog at all the female flesh on display as he greets them at the airport, the girls representing all nationalities and races, but he also finds time to leer at Mrs. Vernor.

In his review of Kill Squad #2, Marty McKee intimates that Tabor and Maria have a “casual sex thing going,” but that isn’t very apparent in Dead Wrong. Maria does worry after Tabor throughout the novel, and he condescendingly pats her on the head a few times, but there’s no indication they’re an item. But then, Maria is separated from her teammates throughout this installment.

Streib delivers a few action scenes early on, with a heist taking place on the freeway, the heisters trying to make off with the sexy women. This leads to a shootout in which Tabor chases after a hippie guy named Pixie whom he recognizes from previous criminal activities. The scene ends in a goofy bit where Pixie tries to escape on a handglider, of all things, and Tabor grabs another one and swoops off of a cliff after him. But Pixie crashes, and there follows a humorous but annoying sequence where Tabor has to convince everyone there even was a heist attempt. But given that he was the only person in the entire battle who fired a gun, he comes off as a psycho aggressor who started it all for no reason.

Chief Jackson, who we are often reminded hates Tabor, uses this to kick him off the force. Even when Tabor goes back to his apartment and is shot at, no one believes that there’s a kidnapping attempt being planned on the twenty women. This apartment shootout furthers the irritatingly-goofy tone of the novel, with Tabor’s landlady nagging at him about damages and costs while Tabor’s still being shot at. This scene also leads to the aforementioned bit where Lincoln slaps cuffs on his “best friend” – a nonsensical scene, especially given that in the very scene before it, Lincoln reported in as sick, going off duty so as to help Tabor!

The majority of the novel actually takes place in a chartered airliner. Vernor’s about to fly on to the next PR stop, and Tabor, no longer a cop, sneaks aboard. Hiding in the restroom, he finds someone else in there – a hippie girl who was part of the failed heist on the freeway. Tabor’s instantly caught, and discovers that Didi, an African beauty who was one of the twenty girls, is in on the heist. So is, unsurprisingly, bodyguard Berlet. The two girls lead Tabor around at gunpoint, and he finds that Lincoln also snuck onboard, but he’s out cold, having been bashed in the head.

The hijackers want to commandeer the plane, but the pilot cabin is locked. So what does hero cop Tabor do? He slides his badge under the door, tells the captain there’s an emergency, and meekly stands aside when the hijackers storm in when the door is unlocked! In fact, Tabor and Lincoln are so preposterously ineffectual throughout this novel that you wonder if Streib isn’t perhaps making fun of the entire Dirty Harry/tough cop genre. Lincoln for example spends most of the novel either out cold or pretending to be; Streib never appears to make up his mind which one it is. But either way, the “tough black cop” lies sprawled on a few chairs throughout the majority of the narrative.

Tabor doesn’t do much better, and he’s wide awake. He sits with the rest of the passengers, wondering who among the group is the secret leader of the hijackers. He suspects Irving Vernor; thus, when later on Berlet decides to start raping the girls, and Tabor tries to defend them, he choses Sabine when Did demands that Tabor have sex with one of the girls, first, so the rest of them can watch(?!). Tabor figures that Vernor will stop the charade, revealing himself, if Tabor attempts to bump uglies with Sabine.

Streib really plays out this sequence, to the point where you just wanna see ‘em screw and get it over with. Unbelievably, Streib, despite building it up to the bursting point, doesn’t even write the actual sex scene! After ending yet another chapter on a cliffhanger (throughout the novel Streib cuts from the airplane storyline to Maria Alvarez, back in San Diego, dealing with her stupid colleagues), Streib comes back to a post-coital Tabor and Sabine, who have indeed gone all the way, with Irving Vernor never once stopping them. Meanwhile Berlet is busy raping the other gals, after all.

So our hero cop has turned over the plane to hijackers (seriously, he could’ve just yelled to the captain, while the door was still locked, to make an emergency landing) and he’s screwed a married woman, right in front of her husband’s face. The one smart thing he does in the novel is send Maria a coded message over the plane’s radio – but while his action is smart, the clue and its reveal is stupid. Tabor calls Maria “Sally,” and, completely apropos of nothing, a cop later just mentions out of the blue that Hale (the name of the hippie hijacker girl) is “Sally” in Hawaiian, and Maria suddenly realizes that Tabor was giving her a clue, letting her know that the hijacked plane, which is flying below radar, is headed for Hawaii!!

This leads us to the finale, which is even more preposterous. While Tabor and Lincoln still sit in the plane, “biding their time” and doing nothing, Maria, who has flown to Hawaii (where of course she has zero authority) commandeers a fuel truck, drives it across the tarmac after the hijacked plane lands, and sprays the entire thing with jet fuel…! Apparently this is to dissuade the hijackers from thinking they can get away safely; meanwhile they’ve already set the plane to blow (our heroes Tabor and Lincoln even sitting still throughout this and watching them do it…but then, they’re biding their time, “waiting for the right moment to strike,” remember).

The long-awaited final battle, sadly, lacks much spark, so to speak. In the conflagration of the jet fuel flames on the tarmac, Tabor rushes around telling everyone not to shoot, but apparently it is okay to shoot if you get away from the spilled fuel, because when Tabor does he grabs a gun and blows away Hale, the hippie girl, then watches as more of the hijackers blow up, including Irving Vernor, who you won’t be surprised to discover was in fact behind the entire plot.

Oh, and Chief Jackson flies to Hawaii to tell Tabor that his Squad is reckless and dangerous, and by the way Tabor is back on the force, but why not go ahead and take a vacation in Hawaii?? But Tabor, recuperating in the hospital from burns, says he craves action asap, and will be headed back to San Diego posthaste. The end! Thus Streib wraps up the novel, with barely any violence, zero sex, and hardly any of the exploitative stuff I demand in my ‘70s pulp fiction. Most damningly, Dead Wrong is boring, and while it should’ve been fun to read, it was more of a chore.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dark Angel #2: The Emerald Oil Caper

Dark Angel #2: The Emerald Oil Caper, by James D. Lawrence
March, 1975  Pyramid Books

If you’ve ever been reading The Baroness and thought to yourself, “This is good and all, but what if, instead of a spy, the Baroness was a private investigator? And what if she was black??”, then you are in luck, because the four-volume Dark Angel series answers those very questions.

Like The Baroness, Dark Angel is copyright book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, who with his usual gift for capitalizing on trends must’ve seen a few Pam Grier movies (or at least saw how much money they were making) and decided yet another paperback series was in order. He even contracted James D. Lawrence, the man who had co-created black comic strip character Friday Foster (which itself was turned into a Grier movie in 1975), to write the series.

The only problem is, the Dark Angel series is woefully overpriced in the used books marketplace, much like another Engel production, Operation Hang Ten, though not to that absurd extent. Unlike that series, though (or at least the volume of it I’ve so far read), Dark Angel is worth tracking down, and it's even better than the sometimes-static and repetitive Baroness series.

Our hero is Angela “Angie” Harpe, who we are informed is known as “The Dark Angel” by the cops and the underworld. Like the Baroness, her beauty and body is frequently mentioned in the narrative, as is her expansive wardrobe, which as in the Baroness books lends the series a trash fiction vibe. And again like the Baroness, Angie is rich and lives the jet-set life, and her main home is a penthouse suite in Manhattan which is described as a very swank ‘70s-style pad, though we learn she plays classical music on her hi-fi instead of the more-expected Love Unlimited Orchestra or Barry White.

Angie has had a colorful history to say the least; she was raised in the ghetto, but through her intelligence she was able to get into Radcliffe, where she graduated with flying colors. Oh, but she also worked as a hooker…before briefly serving as an NYPD cop(!!). She also did some glamor modeling on the side to support herself while in college (while still hooking as an independent, high-class escort), but also to save up money so she could fund her true dream…being a private detective! Like Killinger, Angie now handles big, multimillion-dollar cases for insurance companies.

So, again like the Baroness, Angie Harpe is idealized, but unlike the Baroness she doesn’t come off as a self-centered glory hound. She gets off on danger, and treats her cases with snarky aplomb, which lends the series an intentional camp vibe, with Angie often poking fun at the situations she encounters and the weird characters she meets. And she meets a very weird character early in The Emerald Oil Caper, a lecherous old masked man who is chaffeured around in a big limo.

After being suspiciously called out of her penthouse in the middle of the night, Angie gets in the limo with this strange dude who contacted her; first he asks if, for a thousand dollars, he can “kiss and fondle” her breasts. When Angie says no, he then offers a thousand bucks for her underwear! This she agrees to, giggling at the strangeness of it all as she slips off her “nylon bikini panties” from beneath her miniskirt. My friends, when the old freak in his half-mask started sniffing the panties, holding them right over his face, I knew I was reading a trash masterpiece. And it was only page 16!!

While The Emerald Oil Caper does manage to reach several other such trashy heights, truth to tell it does come off as a little plodding at times. But then, it runs to 220 pages of small print, and thus is similar to other Engel-produced paperbacks in that it’s a little too long for its own good. However, also like other Engel-produced books, it’s pretty well written (even though Lawrence POV-hops like crazy), and it so captures its era that you can almost hear a jazz-funk soundtrack playing in your head.

Anyway, the panty-sniffer turns out to be Xerxes Zagrevi, an Iranian oil tycoon who wants Angie to find out if an oil “wildcatter” named Laidlaw Pike has found oil in Columbia. So Angie breaks into Pike’s suite and snoops around. The novel is filled with kinky details, and here we get another, as Angie discovers a redheaded “sex robot” in a big trunk by Pike’s bed. But when Pike himself enters the room, Angie distracts him the best way she knows how – pretending to be a hooker sent up by management, and proceeding to screw Pike senseless!

There’s a fair bit of sex in The Emerald Oil Caper, but unlike the Baroness books the sex scenes don’t go on and on. In fact, most of them are only a paragraph long, and barely described, Lawrence moreso going for the metaphorical approach. Have no fear, though, as Angie’s lush body is often described in detail, and as mentioned the novel has a very kinky, at times sadistic bent to it. In fact I found it more kinky than the Baroness books, with Lawrence serving up sex robots, a sadomasochistic anal rapist (not of the Tobias Funke variety), lesbian sex, an over-the-hill tramp who strips and likes to be lead around on a leash, and copious scenes of a nude Angie either being tortured, threatened by rape, or stripping so as to distract someone.

Well, the guy Angie thinks is Laidlaw Pike turns out to be a young strapping dude named Jack Bristol, who himself was snooping around in Pike’s apartment. Jack hires Angie himself; Jack’s father, another oil prospector, was recently murdered, and Jack’s certain it has something to do with an oil field supposedly discovered down in Columbia. The majority of The Emerald Oil Caper is really a murder mystery, with Angie and Jack hurtling from one location to another, interviewing suspects and getting in the occasional fight scene – not to mention engaging in the occasional sex scene with one another.

Angie has a knack for running afoul of people, most of whom just want to get her off of the investigation, and her ethnicity is very often brought up by these people, in particular the fact that she was a black prostitute (though these are not the two words used to describe her). Beyond the heavy kink factor, The Emerald Oil Caper is filled with racist invective and slander and etc, all of which only lends it more of a pulpy, Blaxploitation feel. I also found it interesting that, at least in this volume, Angie only has sex with Caucasians – both male and female.

Lawrence delivers a handful of action scenes, but most of the novel is dialog and investigation. Angie handles herself well in the various scuffles, using martial arts moves. She has her own cache of gadgets, from a big purse that has a steel bar built into the bottom which she uses to brain several people, to a cat burgular type device that lets her scale walls. She also carries a Baby Browning pistol in the purse, and is handy with a variety of sidearms. And she can also blank her mind by flashing on “The One” when she needs to calm herself!

As part of her investigation Angie once again becomes a hooker, going undercover with a group of high-class whores to a party for oil executives. To accomplish this Angie engages in the lesbian sex mentioned above; when she discovers that one of her former coworkers is going to the party, Angie goes over to the gal’s place to booze her up and have some friendly sex with her to really tucker her out (a scene which features the unforgettable line, “Please, darling! Would you sixty-nine me?”). When the girl passes out, boozed, screwed, and drugged, Angie takes her place in the stable of notorious Harlem pimp Longdong Strong, aka “The Abominal Cunt Man,” who got his nickname because he’s “cut more broads than Vidal Sassoon!”

This section in particular is very sleazy and sadistic, with Angie captured (just as she’s going down on the oil exec she’s trying to, uh, pump for info) by Longdong’s goons and taken back to a Harlem pad. Here the pimp himself tortures her with a pair of “pimp sticks,” ie two wire coathangers that are wrapped together, which Longdong uses to whip Angie right on her most private of areas! This is easily the most unsettling scene in the novel, and again quite similar to all of those times in the Baroness books were Penny was captured, stripped, and tortured, before escaping in some novel method.

With all of the sleaze and kinkiness, one can’t really fault Lawrence for sort of dropping the ball on the finale. Sure, Angie’s nude throughout (stripping to a “throbbing Rolling Stones song” so as to distract her would-be murderers), and Lawrence packs in a little bit of gore, with people getting shot, stabbed, and crushed, but our heroine and her boyfriend Jack are suddenly relegated to supporting status. When the villain behind it all is revealed, instead of Angie taking him on, suddenly it’s one of his colleagues who shows up to do the deed, and Jack and Angie run away to hide while those two are killing each other.

But still, I really had a lot of fun reading The Emerald Oil Caper. It’s a shame the Dark Angel books are so overpriced, but I’ll definitely track down the rest of them someday.

And what the heck, here’s the sequence with that redheaded sex robot, as Angie presses the activation switch that’s hidden at the nape of the robot’s neck:

Almost at once she could feel the plastic flesh begin to warm beneath her fingers. A subtle funky aroma of female perspiration and genital exudation rose to her nostrils. The dummy’s hips began to move in a suggestive rhythm. Its arms reached out, its eyes opened and closed, its lips moved. 

“Oh, please! … Fuck me, darling! … Fuck me hard!” 

As the recorded voice spoke from somewhere inside the robot’s head, its knees moved up and back, its hips revolved upward, and its thighs spread wide, revealing the moistly open lips of incredibly realistic genitals. 

“Sorry, sister,” giggled Angie. “I’ve got a headache tonight.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man

The Sharpshooter #10: Hit Man, by Bruno Rossi
November, 1974  Leisure Books

Johnny Sharpshooter Rock returns in a fairly good tenth installment that’s a hell of a lot better than the previous volume. First-time series author John Marshall delivers a Rock that comes off like a combo of Peter McCurtin's original version and the more neurotic character Len Levinson gave us; like McCurtin’s take this Johnny is crazy about guns, and like Len’s he’s crazy about killing mobsters.

As usual, continuity doesn’t exist; in the opening pages we learn that Rock has spent the past month out of the country, with “two of the last four weeks in Acapulco,” taking a vacation after fighting a branch of the Mafia in Puerto Rico. So then, could Hit Man be yet another Sharpshooter novel in which the author thinks he’s writing a volume of The Marksman? I wonder this because, you guessed it, Philip Magellan took on the Mafia in Puerto Rico in The Marksman #5: Headhunter, published a year before Hit Man.

Len informed me that when he was brought onto the series, McCurtin just sent him a few volumes of the three series which made up this bizarre triumvirate as background material, ie The Sharpshooter, The Marksman, and the source series, The Assassin. I’m assuming then that McCurtin did the same with Marshall, just giving him the latest books in the various series to help him with this book. Also, Headhunter was published around the time Marshall would’ve been writing Hit Man. (Len’s also told me that it took “about a year” for his manuscripts to be published.)

Anyway, all this could be nothing and maybe Marshall just pulled “Puerto Rico” out of the air as a place for Rock to have recently been, because otherwise Hit Man isn’t a sequel to that Marksman novel or any other novel, even in the Sharpshooter series. But Rock here does display some Magellan tendencies, from an “armory case” he has made at great expense (and detail) which carries his vast arsenal, to a penchant for donning disguises; the novel opens with Rock shaving off a moustache he apparently sported in Acapulco, to fool any possible mob sightings.

Checking up on the stock he still owns in the family company, Rock also checks the mail that’s accumulated for him in New York. Here he finds a letter from an old ‘Nam buddy, Mike Reid. We’re informed that Mike actually saved Rock’s life during the war, heading out into the night to find a lost and wounded Johnny, and now the man, who owns a cleaning company in Los Angeles and lives with his wife and daughter, has run into trouble with the Mafia. Having seen a photo spread on Rock in “a slick detective magazine,” Mike instantly realized that this character named “Johnny Rock” was none other than his old army pal, John Rocetti.

The letter is a month old, but Rock heads out to LA posthaste. Marshall delivers the goofy sleaze with Rock checking out a stewardess and her “pert ass,” and after he feels her up she goes back to his seat, tells him it’ll cost a hundred bucks, and then proceeds to give him a blowjob! Rock even goes home with her in Los Angeles, leaving a few hundred dollars on her nightstand before leaving.

When Rock meets up with Mike, his pal claims that the mob stuff blew over. Rock doesn’t believe it, but leaves anyway. Soon he learns that the LA area is made up of two families, the Franzias and the Scarpellinos, with a Don Lorenzo serving as godfather and keeping the two families from going to war. Rock finds all this out first-hand when, driving on a steep road, he gets in a wreck with a Cadillac, which happens to be driven by a good-looking Italian woman. Her brutish passenger, an obvious mobster, tries to pull a gun on Rock, who blithely blows him away.

The lady is named Maria Belamonte, and she thanks Rock profusely. She claims to be from Ohio, and came here because her kid sister got involved with the Scarpellino family, and ended up hooked on heroin and now dead. The guy Rock just wasted was a Scarpellino, and Rock did Maria a big favor. Later Rock even takes out the don of the Scarpellinos. After this Maria calls him over to her apartment to show him her appreciation – right in her swank bedroom with its ceiling mirrors and round bed. (Marshall by the way doesn’t get into details in the sex scenes.)

But when Rock and Maria are caught in a failed hit the following morning, Rock instantly suspects something once he’s taken out the hitmen; none of them took a shot at Maria. He’s also figured out that Mike’s wife Ginny and his ten year-old daughter have been taken captive by the Franzias. This latter part he learns, again first-hand, when he comes back to his hotel room to find a gun-toting Mike waiting for him. After disarming his old buddy, Rock gets the full sob story, that the Franzias are holding the two captive until Mike signs over his business to the mob. And Mike had a gun on his pal because he was afraid Rock would stir up trouble and get his family killed.

So as you can see, there’s a bit more plotting and scheming in this installment than most others. Rock himself is a bit more of a schemer and planner in Marshall’s hands, carefully plotting out his attacks and ensuring there are no complications. But he’s kind of stupid so far as protecting his comrades goes. Rock heads off to scope out the Franzia retreat where Mike’s wife and kid are being held, and just leaves Mike there alone. Guess what happens? The Scarpellinos send someone over, get Mike, torture him to find out when Rock plans to hit the Franzia place, and then kill him.

The rescue of Mike’s family is entertaining, with Rock in camo with his face painted like he’s back in ‘Nam, but Marshall doesn’t really play up the action scenes. Rock just sprays people with whatever gun he’s carrying and the people fall down. When he discovers some Scarpellino thugs showing up to ambush him – having learned of his hit from a tortured Mike – he easily deals with them. In fact, Rock is never once in trouble in the entire book, but this is typical of the series. Even a part where he gets vengeance on the Scarpellino who killed Mike, blowing him away point-blank with a hidden derringer, sees Rock making an easy escape.

The highlight of the book is Ginny Reid, who turns out to be even more bloodthirsty than Rock. She wants vengeance for her dead husband and, after sending her kid off on a plane, demands that Rock let her help kill some Scarpellinos. Her first victim is Maria, whose story has turned out to be a lie; she’s really a drug-addict hooker who works for the Scarpellinos. Ginny kidnaps her, ties her up, and in a darkly comic scene tortures her with a car battery, jamming the prod in horrific places. This is probably the only scene in the entire Sharpshooter series in which Johnny Rock tells someone they’re being too brutal! In fact he puts Maria out of her misery with a mercy shot.

Rock and Ginny make a good pair, along the lines of Rock and Iris, way back in the first volume. Marshall doesn’t deliver the expected sex scene between the two, but then, Ginny’s husband was just killed, and as Rock reminds himself, “No matter how horny you are, you just don’t screw your best friend’s wife.” She aids in the final assault in the novel, where Rock again carefully plans an ambush on a lodge in which Don Lorenzo is meeting with the Scarpellinos and Franzias. In fact Ginny does most of the work, firing a grenade launcher from a tree while Rock hides in some bushes and guns down anyone who comes out.

Marshall’s writing is pretty good, with the caveat that he really tells a lot more than he shows. And speaking of which, most of Hit Man is comprised of Rock telling people what he plans to do…and then later we see him doing it. There are several sequences where he’ll just sit around, sipping scotch, and say stuff like “After this, I shall then…” And yeah, Rock says “shall” a lot this time out; in fact, the characters here all speak much too formally, with contractions rarely if ever used.

Also, Hit Man is littered with typos, even more than the Leisure Books norm. I mentioned this to Len, and he sent me this response, which I enjoyed so much I thought I’d share it with the rest of you:

Copyediting at Leisure (BT) probably was done by several people including Peter, Milburn, Jane Thornton and freelancers, depending upon the book and year it was published. BT was a low end company. They paid less for everything, which means they didn't always hire the best people. Peter probably couldn't work at a company like Bantam, because he was too much of a rebel and free spirit, and probably didn't graduate from college. He also had a few teeth missing, which didn't fit the major publisher image. But he was a great man in his own way. I really miss him.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Aquanauts #2: Ten Seconds To Zero

The Aquanauts #2: Ten Seconds To Zero, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1970  Macfadden Books

The second volume of The Aquanauts is less static than the first, with hero William “Tiger Shark” Martin not only more active in the plot, but also sent on a mission that has world-changing implications. Manning Lee Stokes once again doles out the over-long tale in his own stilted, page-filling style, but it’s a style I do enjoy.

Picking up a few months after Cold Blue Death, in late September (which would mean then that it’s September, 1969), Ten Seconds To Zero opens with several US Polaris nuclear subs being destroyed while on routine patrol around the world. Crusty vet Admiral Hank Coffin, returning from the previous volume, is certain the Russkies have invented an underwater anti-submarine missile. Gradually we learn that Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet might have some leads on this mysterious weapon.

Tiger Shark is picked to gather these leads, the President (clearly identified as Nixon) hedging all his bets on the Secret Underwater Service, for which Martin is the one and only Tiger Shark. (And speaking of which, he’s only referred to as “Tiger” or “Tiger Shark” throughout the entire narrative this time, which again lends the novel a comic book tone.) Tiger is now a Lt. Commander, promoted after his success in the previous volume – but having read that novel, I’m not really sure what exactly he was promoted for. But that’s the military for you.

Tiger takes his high-tech private sub KRAB into the Mediterranean and makes his way for Gaza. Here in a nice sequence he makes a nighttime beach landing and hooks up with a group of Israeli agents who are in continuous warfare with the neighboring Egyptians. They operate out of a massive fortress, built in the 10th Century, and Tiger’s main contact turns out to be an attractive Shin Bet agent named Rebecca Rose, a captain in the Israeli army.

Shin Bet’s leads are a series of photos, lifted during a raid on a USSR-aligned Egyptian force, of what appears to be a missile-launching platform, codenamed “Sea Serpent.” Tiger is certain this is the anti-sub device he seeks. Rebecca gives him a ride back to the beach…where she proceeds to give him a whole ‘nother sort of ride. Stokes sets up the expected sex scene with Rebecca’s revelation that her husband was killed two years ago, and she hasn’t had a man since, and she’s told herself that the next man she has will be a stranger. Tiger fits the bill.

Stokes definitely has a sadistic streak, because after the somewhat-explicit sex, Rebecca drives off…and right into a land mine! Tiger mourns her bloody corpse for all of a few seconds and then swims back out to KRAB. He even subdues his desire to gain vengeance on the Egyptians who set the mine, as such actions would go against his orders. As in the previous book, Tiger is very much a Navy man and only does what he is ordered to do.

In fact, Tiger spends the vast majority of Ten Seconds To Zero in KRAB, piloting it around the Mediterranean and Black seas. The thing sounds for all the world like the spaceship in Barbarella, or at least that’s how I picture it, with two “contoured chairs” in front of the viewscreen and even a “small galley” with gear lockers, fridges, and etc. All it needs is a quadraphonic stereo system and shag carpeting.

There is more action this time as well, though not too much of it. First there’s a tense sequence where Tiger discovers the Sea Serpent base, and must navigate a barbed wire maze built around it, set his bombs, and fight off a Russian scuba diver before his oxygen tanks run out. There’s another neat bit where he has to cut away the submarine nets across the Bosporus, leading into the Black Sea; Stokes adds an eerie tone to this, with Tiger discovering the bloated corpse of an executed woman floating nearby.

Once in the Black Sea Tiger’s second mission (after the destruction of the Sea Serpent) is the rescue of Nadine Basiloff, young and beautiful wife of the old man who invented the missile system, Gregor Basiloff. The man wants to defect to the West, but will only do so if his wife comes along; meanwhile, the Russians have separated the couple, keeping Nadine for the past two years as a captive in a lush villa off of the Black Sea.

In the latter half of the novel Stokes suddenly thinks he’s writing a Gothic, with lots of descriptions of the hauntedly beautiful island prison of Nadine Basiloff, and her certainty that the sadistic Soviet commander who oversees the place has decided to rape her. And the man does, demanding Nadine attend dinner with him that evening while the rest of the island staff has been called away. Conveniently, he attempts to rape Nadine just as black-garbed commandos raid the villa, CIA-hired mercenaries who have been briefed by Commander Tom Greene, Tiger’s main contact and another character from the first volume, though with much less “screen time” this novel.

Stokes adds some arbitrary but weird details here, like the fact that Tiger, when he swims out of KRAB to the villa to get Nadine, is greased up to aid his swimming and is wearing nothing but a jock strap! He also has Nadine, rescued right after the sadist began stripping off her clothes, in nothing but a girdle and stocking garters. Believe it or not, Stokes does not write the expected sex scene between Tiger and Nadine, but he lets you know in the final paragraph of the novel that it’s about to happen, and soon.

The finale is a bit underwhelming, though very tense for Tiger and Nadine. In an overlong sequence we have President Nixon and Admiral Coffin on a line to Moscow, with Nixon bluffing the Russians into thinking the US has a top-secret nuclear sub which is now in the Black Sea and will strike Moscow if the Sea Serpents are not destroyed. Of course there is no sub, only a high-tech device Tiger uses to augment KRAB, which will make it appear like a massive nuclear vessel to the Russian scanning devices. 

The title comes into play because the President has given Russia one hour to accede to his demands, and while they dither in Moscow Tiger’s busy sweating it out in KRAB, racing around the ocean floor and evading various Russian ships that are looking for him. Nadine is there, too, panicking on one of those “contour chairs” and now dressed in one of Tiger’s sweaters. It isn’t until ten seconds before the hour’s end that Moscow agrees to the demands, leaving Tiger and Nadine to celebrate being alive in their own adulterous way in KRAB. (No worries about old Basiloff getting upset, as Stokes often informs us that he and his wife are not intimate in the least.)

So while there isn’t much violence or sex, and what little we do get isn’t very explicit or graphic at all – and while the pages are padded out a bit too much – Ten Seconds To Zero is still pretty enjoyable, and definitely better than its predecessor. It’s not the greatest men’s adventure novel ever written, but it’s exactly what you’d expect from Manning Lee Stokes, and your enjoyment of his ponderous style will determine whether or not you’re entertained by this second installment of The Aquanauts.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mission: Impossible (aka Mission: Impossible #1)

Mission: Impossible, by John Tiger
No month stated, 1967  Popular Library

Mission: Impossible ran for seven seasons, but for some reason there were only four tie-in novels published. Luckily, these novels were original stories, not just novelizations of episodes, and if this first one is any indication, the short-lived series is well worth checking out. But then, this first volume was written by Walter Wager, and the only other installment he wrote was the fourth one.

Last year I started watching the show, something I’d meant to do since I was a kid, and I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it, particularly the sixth and seventh seasons, when the Impossible Missions Force went up against “the Syndicate,” ie the mob. These episodes were like ‘70s crime movies, with sometimes-campy plots, awesome ‘70s fashions, and superb “urban funk” soundtracks, usually courtesy Lalo Schifrin, who also wrote the theme song. Most fans though prefer the second and third seasons, where the IMF would go into fictional ComBlock countries and take on spies and whatnot.

This first novel is interesting because it predates even those seasons – it ties in with the first season of Mission: Impossible, when Dan Briggs (played by Steven Hill) was the IMF chief, rather than the more-familiar Jim Phelps (ie Peter Graves, the actor most people think of when they think of the show). Phelps didn’t come onto the scene until the second season, and like most others I much prefer him to Briggs, who came off as very cold and, well, bland in his episodes. (I’ve read this was the actor’s intention, to portray what a real spy might be like, but still – it makes for a boring character.)

Wager spices up Briggs’s character so that he’s more in tune with the common idea of what an action hero should be like. Wager was a prolific writer, working in men's adventure magazines as well as writing novels under a variety of house names, and thus he certainly knows how to quickly dole out an entertaining story with a toughguy leading protagonist. Prose-wise his style reminds me a little of Manning Lee Stokes, only less stuffy, but you can tell the guy cut his teeth in the pulps, as he’s all about the single-sentence paragraph and ending his chapters on (sometimes lame) cliffhangers.

More importantly, he appears to have been a fan of the show, or at least to have watched it – I haven’t read many TV tie-ins, but it’s my understanding that a lot of them were cranked out by contract writers who were usually unfamiliar with the series and characters they were writing about. Wager has the feel of the show so down pat that you can almost hear the Schifrin soundtrack in many scenes; Mission: Impossible would’ve made for a fine episode of the series.

The novel begins just as an episode would, with Briggs visiting some random place, exchanging a code phrase with a contact, and then getting the infamous taped message which gives him his mission. (Unlike the familiar “This tape will self-destruct” of later seasons, in the earliest episodes Briggs had to destroy the tapes himself.) The mission this time is for the IMF to venture to the fictional Latin American country of Santilla, where two former Nazis currently reside – Kurt Dersh and Fritz Messelman.

Dersh was a concentraction camp doctor and performed horrifying experiments on his prisoners; his latest project, funded by the corrupt military junta that rules Santilla, is the creation of Dexon-9, a nerve gas that destroys a person’s mind in seconds. He has been placed in a highly-secure compound on Lake Chiriqui, outside Santilla’s capital city of Isidro, where he is protected by a garrison of soldiers, machine gun nests, and water mines around the shore. The lake itself is infested by piranha.

Messelman was an SS sadist and works as the liason with the rulers of Santila – we’re informed that Dersh, despite his cruelty, is a jolly sort of imbecile who has no understanding of how harmful his experiments are to “lesser races.” The government of Santilla, in the person of General Lorca, intends to use Dexon-9 to take out first Venezuela and later, who knows, maybe the world. There are also fears that they could sell the deadly gas to the Russians or Red Chinese.

Whereas the typical action story would have a commando team drop in and blow everyone away, Briggs and the IMF of course handle things with more finesse. Separately and in groups they head into Isidro, Briggs posing as an obnoxious Texas oilman (as if there’s any other kind), sexpot Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) posing as a jet-setting socialite, and master thespian Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), muscle-bound Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), and electronics whiz Barney Collier (Greg Morris) posing as visitors from a fictional Middle Eastern country, Rollin Hand hamming it up as “Prince Achmed,” with Willy as his turbaned guard and Barney as his aide-de-camp.

This opening “Plan A” is a lot of fun and very much in the spirit of the actual show. My only issue is “sexpot” Cinnamon, whose body and beauty is constantly played up by Wager. Personally I don’t find Barbara Bain very attractive, and I find her “honeytrap” characters in the show often hard to buy; she generally looks a good ten years older than the ingenues she poses as, and that’s no surprise, because the actress was a good ten years older. In later seasons the show cast younger actresses who had the more expected looks and curves for these “bait” sort of roles (Lesley Ann Warren in season five in particular – good grief!!). Now, Bain made up for this with her smarts, grace, and regal bearing, but Wager writes the character like she’s a 24 year-old bombshell.

But anyway, while Cinnamon capably captures ladies’ man Messelman’s attention, Briggs goes around in the guise of an oilman and hires out a helicopter to scope out the fortress on Lake Chiriqui. Rollin Hand makes waves as Prince Achmed, and the “shock and awe” portion of Plan A has Willy enduring a three-mile swim in scuba gear beneath the lake, fending off piranha and avoiding mines. When they discover the fenced perimiter is sound-rigged as well (something Briggs did not know, and thus did not plan for), they revert to Plan B, which is more of a sabotage sort of deal that, again, is really in the spirit of the show.

One difference is that Wager’s IMF is a bit more bloodthirsty. In the show their targets rarely if ever died, and hardly ever did the IMF themselves kill anyone. But in their attempt to swindle Messelman into thinking death commandos from the Israeli revenge squad Shin Bet are after him, Wager’s version of the force blows up the man’s car, killing his driver, and later cause a lot more death and destruction. The Shin Bet stuff is really great, with Messelman finding his office destroyed and vague messages in the paper which are obviously for him alone. One of the hallmarks of Mission: Impossible was the slow breaking of a villain, and Wager completely captures that here.

He also captures the fun element where the IMF members pretend to be other people due to their acting skills and “rubber masks.” Rollin Hand spends the final quarter of the novel playing General Lorca, a well-done sequence which sees him escorting Messelman into the island complex so as to “free” Dersh and plant bombs, the two Germans having been hoodwinked into believing they are, along with Lorca, about to leave Santilla for more money and freedom in “Prince Achmed’s” fictional Middle Eastern country. Here ensues the carnage mentioned above, with the climax featuring a massive explosion taking out the island – and everyone who works in the complex.

One thing Wager does not capture is that fun moment at the climax of each episode in which the IMF’s target realizes he has been had. Wager’s finale is a bit clumsy in this regard, with the IMF team, having bustled Messelman and Dersh onto a private plane, drug them up, handcuff them, and then announce to each of them that they’ve been fooled! This includes goofy stuff with Rollin Hand doffing his mask and bowing to them. It just seems a little too overly comical, given the otherwise well-handled tone of the novel.

As mentioned, Wager’s writing is very good – nice and economical, doling out just what is necessary. Only occasionally does he pad the pages with useless diversions, usually courtesy Messelman’s vitriolic opinions on this or that. As mentioned Wager has an annoying tendency toward the single-line paragraph, an obvious page-filling gambit. More unfortunately he is fond of using epithets, ie “the Oregonian” to describe Briggs, whom Wager states is from, you guessed it, Oregon. Even worse are his constant references to Barney as “the Negro.” Yes, Barney Collier was black, but this was rarely if ever mentioned in the show – as it should be, he was valued for his smarts and his skill, and his race had nothing to do with anything.

But these are minor criticisms. Mission: Impossible is a really enjoyable TV tie-in, and you wish Wager had written more than just two of them.

Monday, September 1, 2014

War Of The Gurus (The Savage Report #2)

War Of The Gurus, by Howard Rheingold
No month stated, 1974  Freeway Press

The second and final installment of The Savage Report is just as breathless and hyperbolic as the first, but this time Howard Rheingold unfortunately tells more than he shows, with the cumulative effect of rendering the reader insensate from the constant barrage of “futurespeak” words, phrases, and worldbuilding.

Picking up four months after the first volume, War Of The Gurus feels like it takes place years later – Rheingold as usual is very prescient in how quickly events will move in the future. Once again, his 1994 comes off like a hyper-accelerated 1974, and one thing the series has going for it is that it shows what future might have ensued if the hippies of the ‘70s had remained tuned in and had not become soulless capitalist yuppies in the ‘80s.

Anyway, Jack Anderson, main protagonist of the previous book, has been living in seclusion on an island bought for him by his boss, media sensation Eve Savage. Anderson quit after the events of the preceding volume, and you know you’re in trouble when within the first few pages the hero is going on about how much he hates being a spy and getting in danger and etc. But soon enough a completely-nude (well, other than a pair of boots) Smoky Kennedy parachutes onto Jack’s island and, after a full night of undescribed adult shenanigans, tells him she needs his help.

Smoky barely had much narrative space in the previous volume, but in this one she’s the star of the show, with Jack relegated to a supporting role and Eve Savage hardly in the novel at all. This makes me suspect that Eve would’ve starred in the third volume, had there been one. Smoky comes off like a female version of Jack, really, a well-seasoned spy who kicks all kinds of ass. This installment plays up more on her smarts, particularly with her gift for computer programming.

The plot, such as it is, is very convoluted this time out. First we have TRIGGER, which is like a ‘70s concept of the internet, a global computer interface that will allow people to vote for political candidates and also send in their opinions on whatever matters. This system is about to be incorporated, to much debate, especially given the recent allegations that TRIGGER might work both ways – ie, users might be unwittingly brainwashed by whatever the person on the other end is sending them.

Then there’s the Seven Elders who worship the Ha-Marani, “boy god” figurehead of a global cult of inward voyagers; they’ve been clashing with the New World Organ, a consortium of computer geeks who claim they are not a religion but that computers can be used to gain salvation, or something. Eve Savage, in her worldwide-watched Savage Report, lights the fuse between these two competing cults, with an actual religious war threatening to break out.

Smoky has apparently gotten herself in deep somehow, and has also quit working for Eve so as to go fully undercover, or something. Honestly my friends, this book is written in such a dizzying rush of “let me describe this and that in hyper-English” that the reader quickly becomes lost. This was the last volume, but the back cover still hypes The Savage Report as a “monthly” series; I’m betting it ended because Rheingold couldn’t keep it up. Seriously, there’s no way an author could write like this on a monthly basis:

Seventeen brands of demonic fury besieged Savage Communications while Eve sat and stared at the impending scenario of carnage; incoming calls lit-up her comboard while she merged with the billionfold audience watching Marshall Law grab the spotlight and lift his bloody truncheon to the skull of the world. The naked face of political sadism had a sweet paralyzing thanatophilic attraction mingled with bestial hatred and stinking fear. It was hard to tear her attention from that image, but Eve Savage was distracted by one small flashing blue light on that christmas-tree comboard. The signal drew her from Marshall Law and the Anaheim horror show; right now, the only person in the wide wobbling world that Eve wanted to talk with was an enigmatic and ominously silent young woman named Kennedy.

Imagine reading something like that on every page, for 200+ pages. What’s most unfortunate is that the story itself is lost in the barrage of newfangled words and “check this out!” navel-gazing. If you thought Grant Morrison was annoying, you should read Howard Rheingold’s work in The Savage Report. Like Morrison, he has a tendency to constantly remind the reader how cool and trendsetting he is, not to mention how in touch he is with the changing forces of the future.

Well anyway, Smoky successfully talks Jack into going undercover with her – he poses as someone into the New World Organ and she goes undercover as a “neophyte priestess” (aka “groupie priestess”) with the followers of Ha-Marani. But shortly thereafter Smoky is abducted by the Entropid Order, who Illuminatus! style go around in a massive submarine, subverting authority. Here on the opulent ship she gets real friendly real quick with Maxwell Damion, one of the captains of the sub, Worldbringer.

After a psychedelic brainwash session with ComCent, the computer software that trains other computer software and is apparently behind the Entropids, Smoky deduces that E. Luther Worldbringer, their leader, is in fact a hologram and upon defeating the computer she is hailed as the new leader of the Entropids. Meanwhile Jack Anderson totally blows his cover when he discovers Smoky is missing, just outright taking off from a woman, Shiva von Toten, who is supposed to be his “in” with the NWO.

Gradually, amid more breathless futurespeak and occasional cutovers to Eve Savage, sometimes meeting with her “tripletrank moodchanger”-inhaling boss, tycoon Lance Wilmott, the plot unfolds and the “surprise” villain is revealed – none other than Dok Tek, returning from the previous volume. That Tek is the villain is spoiled by the back cover, which clearly states he has returned to cause more misfortune, even though he doesn’t show up until nearly the end of the novel itself, and his reveal is intended as a surprise.

Another thing missing this volume is the heated relationship between Jack and Eve Savage, not to mention the liberal approach to drugs of the first volume. Jack does pop some “neurostims” in the final pages, though, amping him up to take on gigantic clones of Dok Tek. This finale by the way takes place in the high-tech underworld beneath New Jersey; we’re informed that the state itself is now a massive computer center. (Also Denver has been destroyed by some plague, and now people there live in the Logan's Run style “Denver Dome.”)

But it all just becomes mired in so much technobabble and New Age mumbo-jumbo. Even the sporadic action that livened up the previous book is gone. As mentioned though, Rheingold certainly knew at least one direction the future was pointing; for example, he adds “cyber” to a bunch of words, though unfortunately none of them are “punk.” But he clearly foresees how central computers and entertainment are going to be to the world of the future.

War Of The Gurus is ultimately wearying, not to mention confusing, but one has to at least appreciate the author’s enthusiasm. It clearly seems to be a finale for the series itself, despite the back cover’s promise of a monthly series, with Jack and Smoky faking their deaths – even Eve believes they’re really dead – and taking off together for a life out of the limelight. Given that no future volumes were ever published, one must assume that is where they remained.