Thursday, October 2, 2014

Death Squad #1: Gang War

Death Squad #1: Gang War, by Frank Colter
January, 1975  Belmont Tower Books

In 1975, Manor Books published the five-volume Kill Squad series, which was about a trio of cops who liked to bend the rules in order to take down the guilty. That same year Belmont Tower published Death Squad, a two-volume series that was about a trio of cops who liked to bend the rules in order to take down the guilty. 

“Frank Colter” was the credited author for Death Squad, and “Mark Cruz” was credited for Kill Squad. However, both authors were one and the same – Dan Streib. It seems to me that he put more focus on the shorter-lived series, though, as judging from this first volume Death Squad is worlds better than Kill Squad, which, at least if the second volume was any indication, was pretty lackluster and tepid. Death Squad #1, while not perfect by any means, at least serves up plenty of action and heaping helpings of gore.

Also, whereas the Kill Squad trio were hyped on the back cover as rulebreakers but in reality weren't so much, the dudes in Death Squad (never actually referred to as such in this first volume) really are asskickers of the first order, to laughable extremes. Throughout the novel they’ll give their lieutenant the finger and then blithely announce that they’re about to “go off duty” so they can kill criminals without any fear of reprimand or any red tape getting in the way!

Unlike the Kill Squad, the Death Squad is comprised of men only: first there’s Sergeant Mark Sanders, 31, a ‘Nam vet who is the star of the show, just as Chet Tabor is the star of the Kill Squad series. Next there’s Sam Durham, a big, muscular, Jim Brown-type black cop. (The black cops are always Jim Brown-types in these books.) Finally there’s Raul Gomez, a stocky Hispanic patrolman who gets the least amount of narrative time in Gang War (the title by the way has zilch to do with the actual plot).

These three San Diego cops have apparently been working as vigilantes together for a while; Streib isn’t very clear about this. He also has a half-assed rivalry between Gomez and Durham that seems to come and go. Also, these three aren’t partners, at least so far as it goes officially; in fact the novel opens with the gruesome and unsettling murder of Sanders’s new partner, a young black officer who has just joined the force. 

Responding to a rape call, the duo arrive to find the perpetrators, a pair of young white men, rushing away. However due to all those goddamn rules and procedures, Sanders is unable to pull his gun until he’s certain he’s in danger. Meanwhile one of the perps, hidden behind a bush, whips out a gun and shoots Sanders’s partner right in the crotch. Streib doesn’t shirk on the shiver-inducing details; as if this wasn’t enough, the poor bastard gets shot again, and lays there waiting to die. Again, due to the damn rule book, Sanders is unable to leave the side of the rape victim, a young Hispanic girl, and the perps get away.

But when Durham and Gomez show up, Sanders promptly gives his lieutenant the finger, goes “off duty,” and chases after the rapists on his own! This entails the first of many action sequences, however the perps escape. Handily, though, Gomez reveals that he’s taken a pin from the rape victim’s hand; it’s an image of joined nautical knots, and it apparently fell off of one of the rapists. Instead of turning this in as evidence, the three decide to use it to root out the culprits, and break up to investigate the various local yacht clubs to see if this is the logo of any of them.

Of course, Sanders strikes gold at his first yacht club, where in the midst of a bunch of rich, snotty college-age kids he meets the ravishing Jessica Kane. Here the uber-wealthy sit on their yachts and have endless parties, and Sanders instantly runs afoul of them, in particular two college punks, Robbins and Talbott, both of whom are sons of highly-influential pillars of San Diego society. Jessica comes on strong to Sanders, even inviting him home, though Streib is firmly in the “fade to black” category when it comes to the actual screwin’.

Not only is the framework of this series similar to Kill Squad, but it also shares some of the same plot developments. Namely, just as Chet Tabor went back to his apartment in Dead Wrong only to walk into an ambush, so does Sanders go back to his apartment and receive a mysterious call that the place is about to blow. This sees more overdone gore as Streib lovingly details a poor airline stewardess/next door neighbor getting blown to bits in the explosion – capped off with the dark humor “punchline” of Sanders announcing that he just “slept with her last week.”

Gradually we learn that the Death Squad is dealing with the Terrorist Liberation Army, regular hippie terrorists, of the spoiled rich kid variety. Sort of like in Father Pig, or, more accurately, Len Levinson's The Terrorists. The Squad dishes bloody payback to one of them, the above-mentioned Talbott, who immolates himself after a sort-of-endless chase aboard one of the yachts. This leads to a vendetta against our three heroes, who meanwhile are brought before the commisioner and mayor and etc and accused of being fascists and the like. In response Sanders whips out that middle finger again and tells bigshot lawyer Robbins that his son is probably one of the Terrorist Liberation Army.

The climax is another nice action movie-esque scene in which the TLA hold several people hostage in the sprawling San Diego zoo, and of course Sanders goes in alone to free them, with Durham and Gomez on the sidelines to provide backup. This is a fairly violent scene in which Streib again relishes in gorily killing off women, first with a grandmother who gets shot in the head (complete with detail of her eyeballs popping out) and later, a .44 Magnum-armed Sanders shooting one of the female terrorists right in her most private of areas! (And the poor girl lies there in numbed shock as she slowly dies, while Sanders kneels over her and berates her!)

Streib is not good at building up mystery, and it’s painfully obvious someone Sanders trusts is secretly in the TLA – so obvious, in fact, that Durham and Gomez basically slap Sanders in the head and tell him to snap out of it and realize that Jessica Kane is working with them. And of course, this turns out to be the case, with one of the more casual “reveals” in a finale yet, as Jessica comes out of the veritable hippie-terrorist closet, announcing herself to a chest-shot Sam Durham (who despite what sounds like a fatal wound survives). 

Streib gives us an unsettling finale, in which Sanders, who has just discovered that Jessica is a terrorist, announces that he had been falling in love with her and was even thinking of marrying her…and then he shoots her point-blank in the head! Once again we get detail of how a girl’s face explodes, including how her cheekbones splash out on Durham’s lap – and, mind you, she wasn’t even aiming her gun at Sanders when he shot her! So in other words, he just plain murders her.

And that’s it, the end. Certainly it’s over the top, but really that’s what I want from these grimy men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s. There is nothing heroic about Sanders, Durham, and Gomez, and they’re presented as straight-up murderers. What’s more, they’re very open about their desire (and enjoyment) of killing criminals. It’s funny, because you realize that “the book” and the rules and regulations and etc are all there precisely to prevent such murderous fascism on the police force; so in other words, these three basically create the very “red tape” they bitch about.

There was only one more volume of Death Squad, which I can’t be too sad about; while Gang War was entertaining, at least so far as the overdone tone and gore went, there really wasn’t anything that special or memorable about it.


Grant said...

It might be semantics, but another odd thing is that the exact phrase "death squad" is usually used for a group you're supposed to be AGAINST. When people (liberal or conservative) are telling horror stories about some foreign leader, they usually mention his "death squad."

Anonymous said...

True, Grant, though the use of the phrase "death squad" to describe a group of vigilante protagonists isn't unique to this short-lived series. Don Pendelton titled his second Executioner novel, published a full six years earlier, "Death Squad". In it, Mack Bolan recruits a bunch of his 'Nam buddies to help him wage war against the Mafia, and specifically refers to the group as a "death squad" throughout. In Bolan's case, it's likely he appreciated the irony of the phrase. Streib's misanthropic protagonists, on the other hand, probably would not.