Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hawker #1: Florida Firefight

Hawker #1: Florida Firefight, by Carl Ramm
May, 1985  Dell Books

One of those men’s adventure series that goes for high dollars now, thanks to the current fame of the author, Hawker ran for 11 volumes and, if this first volume is any indication, was pretty good. Unfortunately, given those inflated prices, I’ll only be reading the handful of copies I came upon last year at a Half Price Bookstore.

Randy Wayne White wrote the series as “Carl Ramm,” and I have to admit that before discovering this series I was unfamiliar with the guy’s work. But he’s actually a successful novelist these days, apparently really getting into the spotlight in 1990, when he began his Doc Ford “eco-mystery” series of books, which themselves might be worth checking out sometime (and are certainly easier to come by than the Hawker books!).

Like most other ‘80s series, Florida Firefight starts off with the hero’s origin story (it seems to me that most men’s adventure series in the ‘70s dispensed with origin stories). We meet tough Chicago cop James Hawker, a 34-year-old SWAT captain, as he’s got a Guatemalan terrorist in his crosshairs. The terrorist has abducted several rich teenagers from a local private school. But instead of blowing away the terrorist, Hawker must wait for confirmation to shoot – political red tape and all the usual stuff.

But when the terrorist starts blowing kids away, including one athletic-looking young man, Hawker cancels his ticket with a headshot. Hawker is later called out for ignoring rules, and he quits the force in disgust. This is hard for Hawker, who almost became a professional baseball player, as he was raised by a cop, his father having come to the US from Ireland (where Hawker was born) and starting up various neighborhood crime watches. (Hawker’s dad, by the way, was eventually himself killed by the criminals he was patrolling against.)

There’s a great part early in the book that lets the reader know they’re in for a good ride: coming across a group of punks who are attacking an elderly couple in a park, Hawker beats the shit out of them…and then, seeing how the old man’s dignity has been robbed, puts his hand around the throat of one of the punks and whispers to him that he’s going to let the old man kick his ass. The punk has no choice but to comply, and there follows a humorous but satisfying bit where the old man starts kicking punk ass, literally.

The novel really gets rolling when Hawker is invited to the mansion of Jacob Montgomery Hayes, one of the richest men in the city. It turns out that Hayes was the father of the boy who was killed by the Guatemalan terrorist in the opening sequence. Hawker knows this going in, having done his homework via RUSTLED, a PC program created for him by a hacker acquaintance. Florida Firefight is interesting in how prescient it is; White clearly understood how important computers and data and hacking would all soon become.

The series appears to play things mostly straight, with the only pulpish flair being Hayes himself. The millionaire, you see, wants to stab back at crime, and he wants Hawker to work for him as like his personal mercenary. Hayes offers Hawker limitless funding if he will accept his offer to wage a one-man war on crime and terrorism and whatnot – Hayes will provide the money and the armament, and Hawker will have freedom to chose what battles he wants to fight. Hawker, excited at the prospect, quickly accepts.

Hayes already has a first mission to propse to Hawker: down in Mahogany Bay, deep in the Florida Everglades, something strange appears to be going on. Hayes used to fish down there, and his old friend, the owner of the Tarpon Inn, has intimated that things have gone to hell. Long story short, the place has been taken over by Columbians, who are using the remote fishing town as a base for their drug-smuggling ventures.

I’ve read that White’s Doc Ford books take place in a fictional analogue of Mahogany Bay, but here he has Columbians overrunning the real place. It also appears that White is from this area, and is a well-known regional writer, so I’m betting there are a lot of in-jokes peppered throughout Florida Firefight. At any rate he really brings the place to life, with the small town populace living in fear of the invading Columbians. In fact, the whole thing sort of has the feel of Death Wish III, only with Columbians instead of street gangs.

White is also one of those authors who brings more of a hardboiled feel to the novel rather than an action-packed, men’s adventure-style vibe. The guy can really write, and has a gift for dialog and humorous exchanges. What you miss though is the OTT feel of the genre, with White keeping it all realistic, to a point. There’s also no gore or much violence, even though lots of people die. But when Hawker shoots someone, it’s all very PG-13, with the dude just falling down and no exploitation whatsoever of the carnage.

But of all the ‘80s action series I’ve read, I’m most surprised that Hawker was never bought for film rights, as it really comes off like something that could’ve been released by the Cannon Group. I guess maybe I’m just again thinking of Death Wish III, especially when Hawker gets in a fight with a group of Columbians immediately upon his entrance to Mahogany Bay.

Unlike ‘80s action icons like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, though, Hawker gets beaten nearly to death, and wakes up in the home of Dr. Winnie Tiger, a gorgeous American Indian with “haunting eyes” and “full breasts.” (My friends, all of the women have full breasts in the world of men’s adventure, and god bless ‘em for it!) The funny dialog really comes out here, like when Hawker says that “Winnie seems an unlikely name for an American Indian,” and Winnie responds, “Crazy Horse and Tecumseh were already taken.”

Winnie, who has only recently come to Makura as an environmental researcher or something, nurses Hawker back to health, and rather than the dirty doings we’d expect Hawker instead leaves and hooks up with his contact, an old friend of Hayes’s and the guy who, as owner of the Tarpon Inn, is the one who alerted Hayes of the problems down here. This guy takes off and Hawker, per the plan, now poses as the new owner of the Tarpon Inn.

Again White introduces memorable characters; there’s Graeme Mellor, the New Zealander bartender at the Tarpon Inn, and Logan, the monosyllabic cook who is a Vietnam vet. White also captures “coastal cuisine” so well that you want to go to Red Lobster or something; Logan cooks up lots of tasty-sounding dishes throughout the novel. But still, while the writing is excellent and the characters interesting, those expecting the blood and guts of the genre will be disappointed, as Florida Firefight is more of a slow-burning affair.

First Hawker repairs the sense of dignity that has been robbed the townspeople by starting varoius programs to rebuild the Tarpon Inn and to bring more tourists down to the once-scenic location. Things only come to a boiling point when an Inn waitress is killed, outside of Winnie’s house – the retribution Hawker knew would be coming, giving how Winnie came to his aid Hawker’s first day here. Hawker finds Logan crying over the woman’s corpse; the two were an item.

Hawker has begun to suspect someone else is down here in Makura, scouting out the Columbians, and he thinks it’s Logan. So, here begins this joke where Hawker will keep telling Logan that Hawker “knows” Logan’s with the FBI or whatever, and Logan will constantly respond with, “I’m just a cook.” Yes, exactly the same joke and setup as Steven Seagal’s later film Under Siege. And, just like Seagal’s character, Logan turns out to be an asskicker of the first order, going with Hawker on his climactic raid on the Columbians.

While there isn’t much blood or guts, White surprisingly doesn’t shirk on the sex – Winnie Tiger doesn’t have as big a part in the narrative as the reader might first expect, but she does become the genre-mandatory easy lay for our hero. White writes an ensuing scene that’s both erotic and funny, with the banter still being exchanged while the two are going down on each other. It’s a sequence that goes far but not too far – I mean, we aren’t talking William W. Johnstone sleaze, but at least it packs more of a punch than what you’d read in say a Gold Eagle publication.

White also builds up more of a threat when Hawker finally deduces that, Invasion U.S.A. style, these Columbians are not only smuggling drugs, but also using Makura Bay as a base through which they will begin to infiltrate the United States. And, just like in that film, they’re being funded by the goddamn Soviets. Still White holds back on the carnage, with Hawker first flying to DC to meet with the Columbian diplomat who is apparently funding the terrorists. Here again White proves his mastery of bringing minor characters to life.

But when the sparks do fly, they are expertly done; as the townspeople, armed with clubs, launch an attack on the Columbian stronghold, Hawker lies in shadows with a sniper rifle. Only when the Columbians begin firing does Hawker kill anyone, and from there it’s straight into that ‘80s action vibe we all so enjoy. Hawker and Logan become a two-man destruction squad, blowing away hordes of AK47-toting Columbian terrorists – the same terrorist faction, we soon learn, that the Guatemalan terrorist back in Chicago was a part of.

There isn’t much overly-detailed gore, but lots of violence as many Columbians meet their bloody ends, including a memorable bit where Hawker, holed up on a yacht, hits them with White Phosphorous. White does cop out a bit on the finale; all along we’ve been told a guy named Medelli is behind the Makura Bay infiltration, but when Hawker storms the command post of the Columbian ship he finds Medelli already dead, that Columbian diplomat there, holding a smoking gun.

Turns out this guy is the true leader, and there follows lots of action-halting exposition where we are informed that Medelli was a traitor and etc. More reveals ensue as a friend turns out to be an enemy (spoiler alert: we learn at the end that Winnie is actually the daughter of the diplomat, though she does claim she’s in love with Hawker), and we also find out that the mystery “government man” isn’t Logan after all (spoiler alert: it’s Graeme).

Speaking of Logan, the end hints that he might stick around; he’s there in Chicago with Hawker for another meeting with Hayes, where the millionaire admits that he knew these Columbians were part of the same terrorist army that the man who killed his son was part of. In other words, it was partly a revenge job. Hayes promises there will be no more subterfuge in future, and Hawker happily agrees to continue working with him.

Anyway I’ve tried to give a too-elaborate rundown of this novel because, judging from prices on Amazon, Abebooks, and etc, this book might be priced higher than the average men’s adventure fan would want to pay. And while Florida Firefight is definitely entertaining, with some of the better prose you’ll find in the genre, as well as interesting characters and humorous dialog, I wouldn’t say it justifies those inflated prices.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Guardians #2: Trial By Fire

The Guardians #2: Trial By Fire, by Richard Austin
May, 1985  Jove Books

It’s taken me forever to get back to the Guardians series; over two years ago I read the first volume of this post-nuke pulp, but kept putting off reading the next volume. Not that the first volume was terrible or anything, it was just sort of monotonous and overwritten, with endless sequences of the titular characters in their armored vehicle driving around the blasted ruins of the American countryside.

This second volume, which occurs a few weeks later, at least broadens the scope, but it’s no less monotonous or overwritten. Trial By Fire comes in at a whopping 231 pages of small print, with hardly any white space; each page is comprised of thick chunks of paragraphs. It’s just way too long for a men’s adventure novel. Not that Victor Milan (aka “Richard Austin”) can’t write, as the guy’s actually a gifted word-spinner, but the book moves as slow as molasses. These men’s adventure novels are generally quick reads, even the long ones by Manning Lee Stokes, but reading Trial By Fire was like hitting a brick wall.

Anyway our four Gardians – Force Recon Marine and team leader Billy McKay, Navy man Sam Sloan, Green Beret Tom Johnson, and figher ace Casey Wilson – are now in the Heartland Complex, a government bomb shelter somewhere beneath Iowa, having gotten there after the endless drive that comprised the previous volume. Now they’re getting bored, goofing off in the antiseptic corridors of the sprawling underworld compound, and thus are happy when the Guardians creator, Major Crenna, summons them for a new mission.

I’m not sure if Crenna appeared in the previous volume. He’s a memorable character, even if he only has a few scenes. Apparently he only has half a face, part of it blown away in a skirmish years before, and he’s a gruff and dour s.o.b. who tells the Guardians what to do. Their primary mission is the protection of the Blueprint for Renewal, an initiative started by now-dead President Lowell which was dreamed up by a consortium of scientists and engineers and whatnot. The plan was that these brainy folk would band together and figure out how to rebuild the United States in case of a nuclear war. Now the Guardians must again go back out into the blasted countryside and round up the people who were part of the Blueprint.

The only problem is, computer records are pretty sketcy in the post-holocaust, and given its top secret nature, who exactly worked on Project Blueprint is unknown; President Lowell apparently had all of the info with him when his plane went down, shortly after the “one-hour war” occurred. But the Heartland technicians have pulled four names from what remains of the databases, and they’re spread around the Midwest. Now the Guardians have to hop back into their armored vehicle, Mobile One, and head back out to get them.

All this stuff gradually becomes as dour and monotonous as the first book, but Milan really opens things up with the (unfortunately brief) appearance of Maximov, the James Bond-style villain who is located in nuke-unscathed Europe and who appeared in the final pages of the first volume. Maximov fronts the New World Order-type Internationalist Council, which is “the governing body of the Federated States of Europe.” Maximov even refers to it as a New World Order organization, and he also refers to Bond – that is, after he’s mercilessly killed off the members of the Council once he has assumed sole control of it.

Maximov is very much in the grandiose villain mode, even proclaiming himself a “Goya of reality” in the way he dispatches the Council, having masked men storm into their meeting and blast them away with submachine guns while Maximov watches from behind a bullet-proof glass window, enjoying the show. He later claims he got the idea from a Robert Ludlum novel, saying that if he’d wanted to do to it in the “high camp” style of a James Bond movie, he would’ve electrocuted all of them – but that would’ve been too expensive.

Looking to get his hands on the Blueprint for Renewal, Maximov has underlings hiding in the shattered US government, and it appears this will be a recurring theme of future volumes, the Guardians et al being duped by Maximov stooges. This volume we get a lot of stuff with Trajan, the code name of Maximov’s top man in the US intelligence arena; so high, in fact, that he’s in charge of the CIA, and was behind all of those attacks on Mobile One the previous volume, when the Guardians were trying to get Vice Preisdent (now President) MacGregor to the Heartland Complex.

The “high camp” and Bond mentions are just the first indication of the knowing nods Milan gives us throughout Trial By Fire. Like John Shirley in the Traveler books, Milan obviously enjoys throwing his readers little in-jokes, not to mention having his characters discuss all manner of pop culture. But unlike Traveler, which stayed lean and mean and got crazy quick, The Guardians instead stays serious throughout, more in the manner of a Gold Eagle series; in fact, this series is more like the post-nuke series a reader would’ve expected Gold Eagle to publish, more so than Deathlands.

You also get the Gold Eagle-mandatory gun porn, which runs freely throughout Trial By Fire, with egregious detail about assault rifles and etc jammed into the narrative with little regard for pacing or form. But sadly, the gun porn doesn’t play out much, as the action scenes are kind of bland, with people just getting shot and falling down. Only rarely does Milan liven it up with gore. In other words, this post-nuke pulp is nowhere in the almighty realm of David Alexander's gore-tastic Phoenix, still the very pinnacle of post-nuke action, as far as I’m concerned.

Milan also adds a bit of Stephen King’s The Stand, with the appearance of Josiah Coffin, scarecrow-thin messiah of the Children of the New Dispensation. Unfortunately this means we get too many scenes of the slack-jawed, hardscrabble faithful who flock to the obviously-insane leader, who is worshipped because he emerged unscathed from the depths of a totally-radiated area. But man this New Dispensation stuff is a total drag, with the Guardians on their trips encountering tons of the followers, and it just goes on and on.

In particular they get in a skirmish with them in Kansas City, where the Guardians attempt to get Dr. James Okeda, one of the Blueprint people. However his research clinic is surrounded by bloodthirsty New Dispensation masses, who are hungry for scientist blood. After all of this finally wraps up, the Guardians then move on to Colorado, where they attempt to get the next person, Dr. Perkins – who turns out to have joined Josiah Coffin’s followers. Now we get even more of this post-holocaust Christian stuff.

This section is livened by the presence of “road gypsies” who now work with Coffin’s followers; yet another knowing reference, we’re informed that the road gypsies were inspired by the Mad Max movies (as well as the countless rip offs) and thus go around in chains and leather and mohawks – and now that the nuclear holocaust has actually happened, they’re really into it. We also get the enjoyable presence of Soames Summerill, “the William Buckley of the ‘90s,” a neo-Conservative pundit and best-selling author who is one of Maximov’s followers, and who is using the New Dispensation to foster more unrest in America.

After lots of trials and tribulations, with McKay even knocked unconcious for ten days at one point, the Guardians next move on to the Rio Grande, where in the hippie-style “Freehold” of anarchists they find Dr. Marguerite Connoly, the last Blueprint person on their list. Here Casey Wilson falls for the doctor’s hot anarchist daughter, Angela, though unlike the last volume Milan doesn’t bother writing any sex scenes this time. Finally, after long, long length, it all culminates in a pitched battle against Coffin’s people, with the rewarding outcome that at least, after the endless drone of this novel, we won’t have to read about Josiah Coffin or his followers anymore.

What’s strange is that Milan’s writing is good, and he has a definite gift for coining unusual and memorable phrases: hayseed mystic, dinosaurian rage, samurai fever (the last of which could’ve been the title of a Hanoi Rocks album). But it gets to be too much, just on and on and on with the description and the endless prattle of those “hayseed mystics,” with little of the batshit-crazy stuff I want from these post-nuke pulps. Despite the knowing pop culture references, with even The Lord of the Rings mentioned over and over, Milan brings little fantastical element to his own novel.

Ironically enough, I was missing a few volumes of this series, and happened recently to find all of the ones I needed at a used bookstore in Austin (ie, “Richard Austin”…yeah, I know). I’ll try to make it sooner than two years before I read the next volume of the series, but I’ve gotta say, I’m not in a hurry. This one really drained me.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Joseph Rosenberger: The Man, The Myth -- Part II

A big thanks to Donald “Dr. Rock” Schnell, who wrote me out of the blue last week, telling me that he knew Joseph Rosenberger back in the early ‘80s. Dr. Rock, who can be found at the Young For Life site and has published the books Fitonics For Life and Young For Life, has kindly offered to share his memories of Rosenberger with the rest of us.

The interesting details provided below go a long way toward fleshing out the mysterious character who was Joseph Rosenberger, especially when combined with the interview and letter which are also here on the blog.

Anyway, here’s Dr. Rock!

I met Joseph Rosenberger in the 1980s. He assisted me with starting my writing career.

In no particular order, I will present my recollection of Joe. Thats what he wanted me to call him.

I was about 25 years old and Joe was in his mid-fifties. This was approximately 1982-83. I met him at his home in Mesa, Arizona. I was living in Mesa at the time while attending Arizona State University and teaching full time in the Tempe School District. I was taking a course in fiction writing with Writer’s Digest at the time.

I was interested in writing Action Adventure. I was working on a series, called “The Cobra.”  It was similar to the Remo Williams stories. The main character was trained in an ancient martial art, the cobra style. At that time I was studying the works of Don Pendleton and Joseph Rosenberger for ideas on how to develop my stories and characters.

As improbable as it may sound, I believe I looked his name “Joseph R. Rosenberger” up in my local phone book. Sure enough, there was a listing in Mesa, Arizona. I took a chance and called and explained who I was and why Id like to meet with him.

Joe lived in what you could describe as a non-descript perfectly plain middle class neighborhood. It would be the type of home a spy might select if they were choosing to blend in and go unnoticed.

He met me at the front door. The front door was heavily screened with a super heavy metal door. The door was a solid barrier to any unauthorized entrance. I would later discover the back door was similarly covered by a security door. Both the front door and rear door had extra heavy duty locks and chains. The windows of the house were also protected from easy entry or burglary.

It seemed that Joe was either a very cautious man or “paranoid” about intruders. It may have been another way that he lived to truly identify with his character so that he could write about the Death Merchant. Most of the homes in that neighborhood did not have that type of heavy duty security. I think that may have been one of the secrets to his creative success with the series. He lived the part and immersed himself into his character.

Joe wore a military shirt and pants with black boots. The shirt was long sleeved and had epaulets. His clothes were Khaki colored. It was as if he wore a military uniform without any rank or medals. He wore this same outfit every time I saw him. Joe was about 6 feet. He was lean and had dark hair. He projected the air of a man of no nonsense.

Joe reminded me of stories Id read of Hemmingway and other professional writers. He was a paradox in terms of appearance because he looked like and dressed like a soldier who was ready for combat. Perhaps he dressed this way to be able to identify with his main character, Richard Carmellion of the Death Merchant.

After basic introductions, he took me to his writers studio. It was one of the bedrooms of the home. The office contained a desk with a typewriter. Joe didn't use a computer. The room was filled with National Geographic magazines and copies of his Death Merchant series.

Joe explained to me that writing was “hard” work. At the time he had a contract with a company that purchased his Death Merchant series. I believe he was producing about one book every three months, but it may have been more frequent.

He showed me articles he'd written in the 1960s for dozens of mens magazines from Argosy, Fate, and others that were more suited for Playboy type magazines. He also wrote erotic fiction. I dont think that was where he made the bulk of his money. Essentially, in Joe's words, “if a publisher paid by the word, he would write for them.” Joe worked to make a living as a writer.

He had a formula for producing the Death Merchant and other similar action adventure novels. He showed me his formula. I can only recall at this time that he had what I believed was a 10 chapter formula. Each chapter contained approximately 20 pages. Each of those 10 chapters had a purpose to them for the story to properly develop. Once he finished each chapter he would staple that chapter together, and then move onto the next chapter. When he was finished he would stack all ten chapters, place rubber bands around them and place them in a box to mail to his publisher. He was very organized and systematic. I believe his success was due to his organization.

Joe said his readers were tough on him to be accurate with details. He used National Geographic to describe scenes for the Death Merchant. This way he could be sure he was using the right descriptions to describe geographical locations. His office was also filled with street maps of all 50 states. He would use these to describe routes driven by the Death Merchant. He strove for accuracy. He also had a collection of guns and ammo magazines. He would use these to describe different weapons and their effects.

Joe had an interest in the “psychic” world and ESP. He wasn't a “New Age” type. He was intrigued by these subjects from the research of JB Rhine. His interest was in the possibility of using these techniques for warfare. I shared with him my experiences while at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The DIA and CIA were in fact using the Rand Corporation to study these same topics during the mid 70s and maybe into the 80s.

Joe was a bright man, a hard worker and a dedicated writer. He loved to entertain his readers. My perception of Joe was that he was very much like his main character. He lived a very quiet private life. His hours were spent researching and writing.

He seemed to be a loner. He didn't live alone. He shared his home with a woman who agreed to cook and clean for them in exchange for room and board. They werent married. But, in spite of the fact that he shared the home, it seemed to be that he was a loner. I never heard him talk about family. That may have been because he respected their privacy. But, I also don't recall any family photos in his office. It seemed that everything in his office was there to facilitate his writing. His office was all business.

We only had about a 1/2 dozen meetings. I moved onto other things, including leaving Arizona and going to Palmer College of Chiropractic.

I believe I learned from Joe that to be a professional writer you have to put in serious time every day. It was a business. It was a business that required research and preparation. Joe was goal oriented and knew each day how many pages he needed to write and what he needed to accomplish in that days work.

I had great respect for Joe as a writer. I still do. I will always appreciate the fact that he met me and was willing to show me the nuts and bolts of the craft as best he could.

One last thing, Joe did mention me in one of his books in the Death Merchant series.  “Schnell” was one of the guys that Richard Carmellion had to take out. It was a minor role, LOL.

12/1/14 UPDATE:

Dr. Rock strikes again -- after reading the above post, Dr. Rock sent me a few more details about Rosenberger, which he gave me permission to post here:

I saw you had a link to a letter and photograph. I went to check it out. Yes, the woman, “Virginia,” was the same woman that he introduced me to. He didn’t say that it was his wife, however. He may have been protecting her privacy. Also, notice the shirt he’s wearing has epaulets!!! The home is the same one that I saw him in.

I read through that letter and another fact was pointed out to me. The letter was written in 1985. Joe was upset because he was being paid $2,500 a book and they wanted 6 books a year! That is one book every two months. As a writer, I can tell you that is hard, hard work.

Now, let’s look at the pay: I was a teacher in 1985 and I was making about $24,000 a year. It is well known that teachers aren’t paid well. Starting salaries in my district were about $18,000. Joe was therefore earning half as much as a teacher, and 1/3 less than a new teacher.

When I realized that, I had even more respect for him. He was literally working himself to death to support himself and Virginia on the money he made from writing. That is all the more reason I wish him well and wish to honor him.

He was definitely an opinionated individual, but that is what made his writing sharp. Joe was a bright man.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hitman #4: They're Coming To Kill You, Jane!

Hitman #4: They're Coming To Kill You, Jane!, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1975  Canyon Books

I had a hard time tracking down this particular installment of the Hitman series; this and the fifth volume must’ve had very scarce printings. Unfortunately, the actual contents of They’re Coming To Kill You, Jane! don’t justify the overblown prices this volume goes for – and also, per earlier installments, the title and back cover copy don’t have much to do with the actual book.

While there is at least a character named “Jane” in the book, the back cover is very misleading, having it that this time Mike “Hitman” Ross goes up against the Scorpions, a gang who has created a drug that turns its victims into mindless zombies. There’s nothing like that in the novel. The Scorpions exist, but the drug, created by boss Frank Scorpio, is a life-extension deal made from various exotic ingredients (including “bat balls”) that Scorpio uses to blackmail old millionaires.

Ross ventures over to San Francisco for this case, summoned there by Betty Stone, an attractive narcotics agent Ross has worked with in the past. But he finds her mauled and seconds from death on her house boat, the woman obviously raped and tortured, with cigarette burns all over her body. She groans the word “scorpions” and dies in Ross’s arms. Figuring it’s the right thing to do, Ross decides to inform Betty’s dad, 70 year-old former police captain Dave Stone, that his daughter is dead.

You’ll seldom read a more blasé reaction to a child’s death, as Captain Stone, who also lives on a houseboat, is like, “huh, she’s dead, how about that.” Ross decides to hang out with the old man for a while, especially when some thugs show up that night to kill him. As usual, Ross makes short work of them, killing them before he can ask questions. Finally someone reprimands him for his “kill first, ask questions later” mindset, Stone telling Ross that he needs to cool it a little if he wants answers.

Ross has discovered that these thugs have light blue scorpion tatttoos on their inner left wrists, and Betty Stone’s dying word was “scorpions,” so Ross knows something is up. But Dave Stone claims the only similar thing he can think of is Frank Scorpio, an old-time gangster who was shot down years before. Ross bullishly insists that Scorpio must still be alive, hence why the thugs went after Betty, as well as Dave himself, as the old captain was Scorpio’s biggest enemy back in the day.

Unfortunately, Ross turns out to be correct – so much for the bizarre plot hinted at by the back cover. In fact, Frank Scorpio turns out to be just your regular crime boss, and his “Scorpion gang” is no different from any other pulp fiction criminal gang. Thus, all the bizarre charms of the back cover copy are lost, and the novel ultimately lacks even the strange feel of the preceding three volumes.

Kin Platt (aka “Kirby Carr”) continues to remind me of Russell Smith in how he so obviously wings his way through his manuscripts, making it up as he goes along without once intending to go back and fix anything in the edit. He also continues to spin out the Dean Ballenger-style tough-guy patter, much of which could come right out of Gannon. But his style and plotting lack the memorable quality of those two authors, and you somewhat wish Canyon Books had hired another ghostwriter to come up with a book based off of that cover and back-cover copy.

As in the previous volume, Platt fills a bunch of pages through the perspective of the lead villain, cutting over to Frank Scorpio, who is indeed live and well. And at seventy he looks more so fifty, thanks to “scorpion stew,” a family recipe cooked up for him by Wu, a Chinese man who claims to be nearly two hundred years old. Made up of a disgusting assortment of ingredients, including of course scorpions, the stew provides longevity – both of the health and sexual varieties. In fact Wu happily recounts how he must have “three pieces-a ass” per day.

Shot by the cops years ago and discovered by Wu, Scorpio was nursed back to health and indeed emerged better than ever, thanks to the stew. Now he blackmails rich men who want to get younger. If they don’t pay he kills them, and it turns out at length that he killed Betty Stone because she happened to see Scorpio in the course of her work, and thus could’ve blown the secret that he didn’t die all those years ago.

Meanwhile Hitman pulls on his “black nylon suit with eye slits and cowl” and goes around killing off mobsters. He gets in a skirmish with a few of them on Angel’s Island, near Alcatraz, and a few others here and there, however the novel doesn’t nearly have as much action as earlier books. But then, when Platt does write action, he almost comes off like a prefigure of David Alexander:

Not fifty yards away, across the blanket of sulphurous fog, he heard men screaming their guts out as his lead ripped into them and the tremendous shock waves of the army M-16 churned their vital organs into offal paste.

He swung the rifle quickly to the opposite side where the fire was steady now and began squeezing off quick bursts into the dark figures he saw through the hot red light of the infra-red scope. He saw them through the smoke and fire as they were knocked down like ten-pins, gaping holes in their bodies as the lethal automatic gobbled away at their lives and took their flesh and blood away in great sweeping chunks of pulverized, scorched flesh.

For once Ross does try to reign in his “kill first” instincts, but he’s still kind of dumb. Like when he easily gets captured by Dr. Gunther Deli, Scorpio’s right-hand man. This entire section seems to come from another novel – Deli is a much more interesting villain than Scorpio – and is another indication of Platt’s first-draft mentality. Tracing the Scorpion gang to a meat-packing building that serves as their cover, Ross kills a few goons and then is promptly caught and knocked out.

He wakes to find himself strapped to a chair, with a robotic voice grilling him with questions. When he reveals himself to be Hitman, the voice says he must be killed, and a laser beam lights up, about to fry Ross. He escapes, to find the reedy little scientist behind the device, Dr. Deli. Then Ross sees the rubber stamp which puts the scorpion tattoo on the gangsters. Deli shows Ross how “harmless” it is, and stamps him…and suddenly Ross is under Deli’s power.

Now we have weird stuff like Ross still escaping, but Deli phoning him later to tell him that Ross is fully under Deli’s control. And he even has a tracer in Ross’s shoe, hence Deli’s locating Ross in this “secret” hotel room. But all this stuff is quickly dropped, despite being heavily built up, that Ross is now under Deli’s complete control, and must do whatever the evil doctor commands. Instead we get more detail about Deli’s high-tech computer system, through which he’s able to run tables and figures on people to see how they might react to a given situation.

All the “mind control” pretty much forgotten, Ross next moves on to researching recent mysterious deaths of wealthy men. This leads him to Jane Bond, “well stacked with a curvaceous figure that wouldn’t quit,” the twenty-three-year-old socialite daughter of John Bigger Bond, who has just died in an accident. Platt doesn’t bother even working up this angle, as Bond and others were clearly murdered, as in each case the men received threatening phone calls, and after telling the caller to go to hell, each of them suddenly turned up dead.

But the first meeting between Ross and Jane comes off like something out of a men’s detective magazine. Receiving a call late one night from the dude who called her father before his death (Jane having eavesdropped on the call – and of course it’s Frank Scorpio), Jane hangs up…and begins fondling her jawdropping breasts. Then Ross steps out of the shadows, having lurked there in her bedroom, dressed in his Hitman costume…and Jane, sure she’s about to be raped and murdered, pulls off her see-through nightie and begs Ross to screw her!

Platt doesn’t elaborate much on the dirty stuff, but needless to say Ross takes the girl up on her offer, figuring he’s got nothing much to lose. But I suspect Platt added all this just so he could justify the “Jane” in the (likely Canyon Books-created) title, because she disappears from the narrative immediately thereafter, and Ross goes back to bullying Wu, who is now Scorpio’s overworked and underappreciated employee, churning out vats of his scorpion stew.

And since he’s spent so many pages detailing Scorpio’s various blackmailing schemes, Platt actually finds himself without enough room to deliver a fulfilling climax. Instead, after really egging us on with detail about all the heavy armament Ross gathers together for his assault on Scorpio’s stronghold in Las Vegas, Platt instead has Wu, who has tagged along with Ross for bullshit reasons, get pissed over how he’s treated and literally stab his boss in the back!

Scorpio dead, and Wu no longer interested in selling the scorpion stew, Ross figures the gang will eventually fall apart…and that’s that! Not a single shot is fired in Hitman’s assault on the Las Vegas meeting of Scorpio’s top men. To say it’s anticlimactic would be an understatement. Meanwhile Ross heads back to SanFran to bump uglies some more with Jane Bond; the end.

This was the last volume published by Canyon Books, after which the series went over to Major; hopefully with the switch the books will improve. It’s unfortunate that this series leaves so much to be desired, as it has so much potential. However there’s always the much superior series of the same name, which is everything this one should’ve been.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Destroyer #5: Dr. Quake

The Destroyer #5: Dr. Quake, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
September, 1972  Pinnacle Books

As I’ve mentioned many times, I have a sick fondness for female villains, the more evil and depraved the better. A frequent commenter named Grant shares my fondness for these pulpy characters, and has often stated that this fifth volume of The Destroyer features some of the best female villains ever. So, when I came across a copy of the book in a used bookstore during a recent trip to Austin, Texas, I snatched it right up.

And while this is easily my favorite volume of the series I’ve yet read, Dr. Quake pretty much encapsulates why I so much prefer other men’s adventure series to The Destroyer. For once again authors Sapir and Murphy have taken a pulpy concept and have proven their reluctance to actually write a pulpy novel – rather, Dr. Quake is the expected satirical, spoofy sort of romp the series is known for.

To be sure, I enjoy this series, but then, I look at that cover, read the back cover description about a mad scientist named Floren blackmailing California with his earthquake device, and wonder what a true pulpster like Manning Lee Stokes might’ve done with it. Instead, Murphy and Sapir put more focus on the bumbling minor characters of the tale, with protagonists Remo Williams and Chiun reduced to almost walk-on roles, and the pulpy stuff is for the most part absent. There isn’t even much sex or violence.

Like #10: Terror Squad, this volume walks an uneasy line between light-hearted spoofery and unexpected savagery, though not to the extent of that later volume. Instead, it’s more satirical for the most part, presaging the direction the series would eventually take. What it’s missing is the customary Remo/Chiun banter; there’s some of it here, but not as much as one would expect. Instead, too much narrative time is given over to loutish, oafish Sheriff Wade Wyatt, who we soon learn is somehow involved with the earthquakes that have been hitting the small Californian town of San Aquino.

A handful of rich men in the city are being blackmailed by some unknown person or persons to hand over a monthly payment of $1,000, or the earthquakes will get bigger and bigger. When one of the men goes to D.C. to talk to someone in the government, he soon ends up dead, and gorily so, his corpse found in a San Aquino hotel with his intestines spilling out of his mouth, as if he’s been crushed. But gradually his D.C. contact gets the attention of CURE, the ultra-secret organization for which Remo Williams serves.

Remo isn’t nearly as satiric or cynical in this early volume, and seems to take his job somewhat seriously. But then, it’s not like he rushes into the fray like any other self-respecting men’s adventure protagonist would. Instead Remo comes into San Aquino posing as the possibly-gay new owner of the company which was previously owned by the murdered man. His goal is to get blackmailed like the other wealthy men are, so he can suss out who is behind the earthquakes.

But still, the authors focus more on Sheriff Wyatt, who comes off like your cliched small town sheriff, with all the expected posturing and ranting, and quickly grates on your nerves. Remo doesn’t get much narrative space, and Chiun hardly any at all. We also get lots of stuff about a group of local Mafioso who are looking to break in on this blackmailing scheme. Only when they try to move in on Remo does the novel really deliver any action, with Remo of course making incredibly short work of them.

Pinnacle hyped Remo as “the super man of the ‘70s” in their advertisements for The Destroyer, and the truth of that slogan only hit me with this installment. It’s exactly correct; Remo is basically the men’s adventure version of Superman, so fast, strong, and deadly that no mere mortal stands a chance against him. And while this is a cool concept, it does tend to rob the series of much tension in the few action scenes, as you know Remo can kill hordes of men without breaking a sweat.

Another thing that bugs me is how the action scenes are actually written. They’re generally never from Remo’s perspective, instead from the perspectives of the various mobsters as they’re suddenly hit without even seeing Remo or Chiun move. This is sort of how Ric Meyers would write the later Ninja Master books, only there the action scenes were better and bloodier. (Speaking of which, Meyers co-wrote four volumes of The Destroyer, and I definitely intend to check them out someday.)

The back cover states that a Dr. Floren is behind the blackmailing, but humorously enough this isn’t revealed until the final pages. Instead we learn that Floren is the chief earthquake researcher at the nearby Richter Institute, and it’s Floren’s twin daughters who are the pulpy evil villains that Grant was talking about. Unfortunately, they don’t show up until much too late in the novel – their presence could have greatly benefitted the opening half of the book.

If you check the cover (which I believe was by Hector Garrido, who also did the Baroness covers), you’ll see one of the twins kneeling worshipfully before Chiun. This, like the other events depicted on the cover, actually happens in the novel, and the twins are also dressed the same, with skin-tight T-shirts with red fists on them; however the twins, Jacki and Jill Floren, are brunettes rather than blondes. They’re also stacked vixens of the Russ Meyer variety, with breastesses so large as to be unnatural; when Remo first sees them, he has to sit down to hide his immediate erection.

The Floren twins appear to be hippie terrorists of a kind, denouncing “the Man” and wearing those fist T-shirts emblazoned with “NOW,” which is the name of their cause. But as mentioned, they just come into the narrative too late, with too much time given over to the bumbling exploits of Sheriff Wyatt, whom the girls constantly call “Pig.” But whereas the reader quickly figures out that the girls are the culprits, Remo is a little slow-witted about it, and doesn’t realize it until the very end, after he’s been double-teamed by them.

And as for the sex, it’s just as minimally-described as the violence:

Jacki stood up, followed Jill and Remo into the bedroom. They were already tangled together on the bed and she stood alongside them, trailing fingertips along their bodies, then she moved to join them. Jill was throbbing again and Remo felt himself being rolled over by Jacki.

They were insatiable. It was like making love to an octopus which had come to drain his vitals, to dry him up, to turn him into an aged man in one lasting moment of lust.

And that’s it, other than for some earlier stuff where the three frolic in the pool, but this too is written in much the same style, without ever getting into the nitty gritty. The actual “dirty stuff” occurs after the authors fade to black, and we only learn later that Remo was so damn skilled that he’s left the twins in a near-coma of satiation. But seriously, if you’re going to have your protagonist screw a pair of hot, sadistic, overly-busty twins, then is it too much to ask that you provide all the juicy details??

Jacki and Jill have devised a “water-laser” device with their father, Dr. Floren. Remo watches how this device causes the utter destruction of anything it’s unleashed upon. The girls and their dad claim that the device does not give off any vibrations, which elicits much argument between Chiun and Remo, with Chiun insisting that everything gives off vibrations. Chiun might not get much narrative space this volume, but he does get to save the day, taking on a colossal water laser that Dr. Floren has built in his effort to completely destroy California.

So yes, it turns out that the titular Dr. Quake (Floren’s apparent nickname) is in fact the true mastermind behind the blackmailing, though this is only revealed at the very end of the tale, despite being boldly pronounced on the back cover. Remo actually spends more time taking on the Mafia, in particular getting vengeance on a hitman who enjoys killing people with an icepick. This is the most memorable scene in the book, and the only time I’ve ever read where a character is killed by a carwash, with Remo strapping the poor bastard down onto the top of a car and sending it through the machine.

But Dr. Quake and his twins are overshadowed by the mobsters, such that their own fates come off as anticlimactic. For Jacki and Jill, who have been committing all of the behind-the-scenes gory murders in San Aquino, all Remo does is knock them into a crevice in the ground which he then shuts with the water-laser, burying them alive. As for Dr. Quake, Chiun saves the day as mentioned, with Remo knocked on his ass by the colossal laser and at death’s door, only saved by Chiun, who re-instructs Remo on various breathing techniques.

I sound like I’m being unduly harsh on Dr. Quake, but in truth I did enjoy it – when I read one of these Destroyer novels, I wish I had the entire series to read, because it really is like a soap opera for guys that you can get caught up in, with Remo and Chiun’s banter and the shared world of odd characters in which they live. But I’m judging the book as a men’s adventure novel, for which I think it’s an utter failure – the action is minimal, the focus is on comedy and spoofery, and the sex is anemic.

However, judged as a goofy sort of men’s adventure spoof, Dr. Quake is a roaring success. Personally, I prefer my pulp with a little more of a serious tone – I mean, I definitely want it to be off the wall and crazy, but so far as the characters go it should be the most serious thing in the world. With the Destroyer books, you more so get the feeling that the characters are as detached from the plot as the authors are.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Marksman #11: Counterattack

The Marksman #11: Counterattack, by Frank Scarpetta
April, 1974  Belmont Tower Books

The Marksman series presents us with more mystery and confusion, as this Russell Smith volume clearly takes place after his last installment, #9: Body Count, yet we appear to have missed something in the interim. And as usual, the questions behind the book are more interesting than its actual contents.

Body Count ended with Philip Magellan on the French Riviera, where he’d collared a heroin dealer named Dante Monza. The tenth volume was by co-writer Peter McCurtin and had nothing to do with the France adventures. Now in this volume, which is clearly by Smith himself, Magellan’s in New Orleans, and it appears he’s just returned to the States from Monaco. But none of the stuff from the previous Smith volumes, like Monza or the Paris-based mobsters Magellan had been fighting since #8: Stone Killer, are mentioned.

In other words, it seems like we’re missing a Smith installment. I’m wondering if McCurtin’s novel was accidentally published as the tenth volume, when it should’ve been Smith’s. Or maybe Smith missed his deadline and never turned in his manuscript? Perhaps it’s one that will turn up later in the series, churned out by a publisher who couldn’t give a damn about series continuity. One thing I won’t guess is that Smith’s manuscript might’ve been too rough to see print; Belmont Tower obviously had no qualms with publishing anything, regardless of quality. This particular novel is just yet more proof of that.

Russell Smith had to have been approaching burnout state by this point, having turned in so many manuscripts in such a short time. His haphazard “plotting” and hamfisted storytelling are especially rough this time, with even less attempt than usual at telling a coherent tale. These books in their own way are almost as bad as the later Tracker series – not that bad, and true they have a bizarre charm about them, but that they are so obviously cranked out without any authorial care is apparent, which thus serves to incur the reader’s anger.

Even basic things one would want from this genre are missing. There are hardly any action scenes, and not even any sex. There is no suspense or mystery, no buildup and playing out of tension. There are no moments of character introspection or depth. There isn’t even the barest attempt at characterization, in fact, with an assortment of figures shuffled across the page in a desperate attempt at reaching a word count.

Anyway, what’s the book about? Well, Magellan’s in New Orleans. Apparently back in Monaco he met some nameless guy at a yachting club(??) and the two struck up a friendship, and this dude apparently kept telling Magellan about the Mafia in New Orleans and how the dude himself was a double agent, working for both Interpol and the Mafia. Smith frequently cuts back to this stuff in Monaco, so it would appear this character, whom we eventually learn is named Robert Choisi, is not a returning character from an unpublished Smith manuscript.

But Magellan’s apparently followed this dude’s advice and come to New Orleans because a big shipment of heroin’s on the way. Magellan ends up acquiring it -- $650 million worth, a number we’re constantly reminded of in the text – and thus sets off a sort of inter-family war among Don Benito Borghese and his Interpol/New Orleans police chief associate, Inspector JM Baffrey, who despite being British is apparently the top cop in New Orleans. Also we get lots of stuff about how the heroin was “stolen,” and the cops set up this fake marijuana bust to appease the public, but then Magellan figures out the heroin was in fact handed over to Borghese…but Magellan ends up getting it, anyway.

There isn’t even any of the wild and wacky stuff with Magellan capturing people and drugging them, though he does often dress in the “hippie” disguise he’s been using since Smith’s first installment, #1: Vendetta. Magellan himself goes without an accomplice this time – during a brief meeting with Baffrey he states “I’m always alone” – but later in the novel he meets up with Choisi and the two reconnect, finally learning each other’s names. One thing I want to make clear is that this is all so rushed and so half-assedly described that as I’m writing this review I’m trying to make sense of the novel I just read.

Smith fills more pages with Borghese dealing with what he assumes are traitors. As usual, no one realizes that the Marksman is in town and is the cause of everyone’s misfortune. Smith also introduces elements that he doesn’t bother following up on, like how Borghese is secretly a heroin addict but only one other person knows about it. There are also some misses, like Borghese’s top capo, who is greatly built up, only to be unceremoniously dropped from the narrative.

The weirdness of previous Smith installments returns when Magellan escapes a trap and steals at random a VW Bus. Inside he finds the bound and unconscious form of a half-naked young woman. He does the expected thing – takes her back to his cabin in the woods, fully strips her, checks her out, then puts her clothes back on! At great length we learn this is Chantal Choisi, daughter of Robert, who had been kidnapped by Borghese’s men, as now the don and JM Baffrey are trying to track down Robert Choisi and the missing heroin.

Per usual Magellan doesn’t put any moves on the girl – the guy’s as sexless as a Terminator – even though she seems to eagerly expect she’s about to get raped when she comes out of her drugged slumber. Instead, Magellan reunites her with her dad, who meanwhile is trying to evade the Mafia and the cops. Smith introduces another lazy, unexplained plot with Chantal switching places with her sister, so as to fool Magellan, but why? What was the point? It’s not explained, but Magellan does hit both father and daughter and then runs away.

Magellan then collects the heroin and ships it “air freight” to New York. That taken care of, he overhears the two Choisi sisters talking, and learns that they’re also apparently cops or something, or at least were trying to help their dad, who himself is really on Magellan’s side, so Magellan lets them live. Then we get the typical rushed Smith finale where Magellan arms himself with some “Japanese grenades” and lobs them into a room where Borghese and Baffrey are meeting. The end!

Honesty, Counterattack was a hot mess, cranked out by an obviously-exhausted author who was likely hopped up on goofballs. It wasn’t an enjoyable read at all, and it’ll take me a while to recover enough from it that I can move on to another volume of this grubby series.

Oh yeah, this novel did prove out another of my stupid theories – namely, that the heroin “Johnny Rock” got “from the score in New Orleans” is not only indication that The Sharpshooter #6: Muzzle Blast was also another Smith manuscript that got turned into a Sharpshooter novel, but also that it takes place sometime after Counterattack.  Curiously, it was published the same month and year as Counterattack -- more indication that Smith was a human typewriter, just cranking out the books.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Deep Sea Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #254)

Deep Sea Death, by Nick Carter
October, 1989  Jove Books

Probably my favorite volume I’ve yet read in the Nick Carter: Killmaster series (and thanks to Zwolf, whose review let me know about it), Deep Sea Death is very much in the pulpy realm, though also a bit anemic so far as the exploitative stuff goes. Apparently this one was written by Jack Garside, an author I’m not familiar with. His writing is so spare though that the book almost comes off like an outline.

The novel’s also pretty much an appropriation of the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me, except instead of a nuclear vessel disappearing it’s an oceanography ship owned by the Foundation for Ocean Research, which is based in Canada. In the endless stretch of the Pacific Ocean these FOR aquatic researchers are investigating underwater caverns for signs of ancient life. Garside has done his research, quickly letting us know the many dangers of this hazardous work.

Leading the group is Dr. Barbara Wall, a brick shithouse blonde who per tradition has kept away from men and etc in the course of her all-important studies, though apparently she’s “allowed” herself to sleep with one of the dudes on this current research trip. But while taking a break in one of those underwater caverns, the group is brutally murdered by attackers who come out of the water, wearing unusual swimming gear that Barbara has never seen before (Garside never really does explain what’s so unusual about this gear, but then this is just the first indication of his minimal descriptions throughout the novel). Barbara survives the attack, though she’s trapped down here in pitch darkness, and that’s where we leave her for the time being.

Meanwhile, Nick Carter’s on vacation, getting laid. I should mention that Carter doesn’t narrate this time around; Deep Sea Death was published after the series returned to the third-person narrative style it began with in the mid-‘60s, and to tell the truth I prefer it. I’ve never really felt that first-person narration jibes with the men’s adventure genre. Anyway, Carter hits it and quits it just in time to receive the call for his new mission. His usual boss Hawk is off on business (and never appears this volume), so control of AXE has fallen to its resident Q, Howard Schmidt.

The Killmaster has to wonder why it’s fallen on him to research the disappearance of a Canadian research vessel, but what the hell. He calls in the aid of an apparent old friend with the awesome name Stonewall Kuhu, a professional scuba diver who lives in Waikiki. My friends, Stonewall Kuhu is one of the most pointless characters I have ever encountered in a novel; he shows up for but a handful of pages, says a few lines, and is dead within two paragraphs of his introduction, and it’s a pointless death at that. I couldn’t figure out why Garside even introduced him in the first place.

But regardless, superman Carter just needs Stonewall’s help, and no one else’s, so after the two are suited up with Schmidt’s latest in the line of scuba technology, they just sort of ply around the Pacific in a high-tech craft that’s disguised as a dinghy, searching for the lost vessel. Again, it all has eerie connotations to the MH370 mystery of the modern day. It doesn’t take the pair long to find the cavern Barbara Wall’s people were researching, complete with signs that the scientists were ambushed and killed.

As soon as they discover this, though, Stonewall dies – and he isn’t killed by those mysterious attackers. Nope, he gets caught in a narrow crevice, slammed out by rising waters, and plunges to his death on the cavern floor! And that’s it for Stonewall Kuhu. His introduction is so greatly built up that his narrative non-presence and bizarrely anticlimactic death come off as laughable. Anyway Carter soon finds the corpses of those scientists, and then he himself is attacked, by a legion of scuba-outfitted commandos who each stand over six feet tall.

Gradually Carter discovers where they’ve come from: an underwater city built within these ancient caverns. Overly attractive scientist-types of both sexes walk around the ultramod corridors of the place, and it’s funny that Farrah Fawcett is still Garside’s benchmark for sex appeal, as he compares the women down here to her. However these people also look overly happy, of the glazed, dazed, and drugged variety, but before Carter can research more he is per tradition caught so he can meet the boss of the place and receive the mandatory “when I rule the world” speech.

The boss turns out to be Xanax Zendal, a power-mad scientist who has corralled all these other scientists down here with promises of wealth, power, and beauty (he gives them free plastic surgery or something, hence all the photogenic faces). It would be great if there were more to Zendal, but Garside does precious little to bring him to life, and barely even describes what the guy looks like. It seems like all Garside did was come up with an appropriate “mad genius” name and left it at that – and as for the goofy name, Carter says it sounds like it comes from “some kid’s sci-fi comic.”

Yet for the minimal description and plot-building, you really can’t complain about a book that already has its hero in the villain’s underwater lair within the first forty pages. Not only that, but here we learn that Zendal’s security force is made up of clones of Zenda’s own creation – not just regular clones, either, but “bionic clones!” He also reveals that there are male and female clones, but again Garside does nothing to bring them to life, never even really describing what they look like.

After informing Carter of his insane schemes to rule the world, Zendal invites our hero to dinner(?!), but Carter says he has to take a piss first and so is escorted to the bathroom by a few clones. Here is the first instance in a Killmaster novel I’ve read where Carter employs Pierre, aka the small poison gas bomb which he tapes beside his scrotum(!!). Escaping back to the surface world, Carter calls in Schmidt, who begins plying his way along the vast distance of the Pacific to reach him.

Hiding out on a deserted beach, Carter starts a fire to cook some food, and is immediately attacked by a naked blonde woman! This turns out to be none other than Dr. Barbara Wall, who has been hiding here herself these past few days. Drawn out by the smell of Carter’s cooking food, Barbara attacks the Killmaster with her impressive karate skills, but is no match for Agent N3. And after she’s had some food, she’s also no match for his romance skills, and posthaste the two are going at it. Unfortunately, Garside is purely of the metaphorical/lyrical approach to sex scenes:

Their mouths came together and each reached for the other as if being close was the most important thing in the world. Her tongue teased his lips, begging for entry, and once inside, worked at his mouth like a warm serpent of love, bent on driving him wild. She built an urge in him so quickly that neihter was interested in further foreplay. He rolled on top of her as she spread herself to receive him and found himself enveloped in a furnace that had been smoldering for hours.

She was as ready as he. The short battle and the magic of their island refuge acted as an aphrodisiac, forcing her to satisfy the heat of passion her body demanded – not minutes from now, but right away. She clung to him, moved with him, and felt a climax coming that she knew instinctively they would both share.

It welled up within them both, urging them on, more like two combatants than lovers. They rolled on the sand and fought a battle for the prize that was so close, held so much promise, and was easily within their reach.

Interestingly, Garside sets Barbara up as a true companion for Carter; despite her lack of battlefield experience, she proves herself time and again with him, and clearly falls in love with him, with Carter apparently feeling the same way by novel’s end. When Schmidt arrives with more high-tech gear, Barbara is able to convince both AXE men that she and Carter need to infiltrate Zendal’s underwater lair and attempt to free the scientists before the US Navy plows in and destroys everyone.

After more of Garside’s minimal descriptions, the two get into the complex and are both promptly captured, but not before Barbara’s able to both kill the obese chef who is brainwashing the scientists with a special powder put in their meals, but also to destroy the mind control agent itself. I should mention here that, for an announced pacifist, Barbara Wall does her share of killing in Deep Sea Death; her murder of the chef is especially dark, with Barbara dosing the heavyset man with sodium pentathol, a guaranteed heart-stopper.

When Carter and Barbara again escape – Zendal’s clones are augmented by human mercs, who it turns out are just as stupid as the clones – all hell gradually breaks loose. Zendal’s master plan is the abduction of a top secret Navy nuclear vessel that is currently heading right for Zendal’s secret lair. When the Navy brass stubbornly won’t listen, Carter and Barbara have to handle the rescue mission themselves, flinging around the Pacific on missile-firing waterskis of Schmidt’s devise – boats which themselves are miniature nuclear bombs!

The final quarter of the novel is an endless action scene, as Zendal’s minions attack the Navy ship, and Carter and Barbara attack the minions, trying to prevent them from stealing away with the nuclear missiles. Garside’s weak powers of description extend to the action scenes as well, with no gore or detailed violence of any kind; people are shot and merely fall down, or drop into the water. As mentioned above, the entire book almost comes off like the outline for a more complete book, just doling out the major incidents and developments and not shedding much light on the details.

In fact, Carter himself figures that he and Barbara have killed “hundreds” of Zendal’s clones and human mercenaries by novel’s end, but I don’t think we read about a single shed of blood. Zendal himself is giving a bloodless sendoff, if still a memorable one, with Carter activating the nuclear armament on his waterski and sending it off for the madman’s escaping watercraft. A little fast swimming and Carter’s even able to escape the nuclear explosion!

While it lacked much memorable content or graphic detail, I think I enjoyed Deep Sea Death mostly due to the fantastical nature of it all. My interests lean more toward the crazy stuff, and this particular installment of the series is definitely crazy, what with its underwater compounds and bionic clones. I just wish it was more fleshed out.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

John Eagle Expeditor #11: Poppies Of Death

John Eagle Expeditor #11: Poppies Of Death, by Paul Edwards
June, 1975  Pyramid Books

This eleventh volume of the John Eagle Expeditor series sees a definite change in the formula that was established in the previous ten installments. Tasked by Mr. Merlin with a mission that “comes closer to pure espionage than anything we have ever sent you on,” John Eagle spends the majority of Poppies Of Death undercover, in what amounts to a basic sort of Cold War-era spy novel.

Paul Eiden turned in this installment, which to tell the truth is just as leisurely paced as his first entry, #7: The Ice Goddess. Unlike that volume, Poppies Of Death doesn’t have an outlandish plot, and in fact comes off like a prefigure of Craig Thomas’s 1977 novel Firefox (which is probably more known as the Clint Eastwood film), with Eagle sneaking into Moscow to steal a plane and fly it back into the free world. But there is no action for the first hundred pages, only livened up here and there with the explicit sex scenes Eiden also brought to his previous contributions.

Despite the lack of a pulpy plot and the minimal thrills for the first third of the volume, Poppies Of Death is nowhere as underwhelming as The Ice Goddess, which wasted the reader’s time with endlessly-detailed games of chess and topical details about an Eskimo’s daily life. I have no idea what Eiden did for a day job, but I’ll guess that, like other series author Robert Lory, he did a fair bit of international traveling, as this novel is filled to the brim with details about life in the USSR, with Moscow itself brought more to life than you’d expect in a men’s adventure novel.

In a way, this “Eagle goes undercover” angle had already been done in the series, back in the almighty #5: Valley Of Vultures. Either Eiden, like Manning Lee Stokes, decided a change-up was due to the series formula, or maybe editor Lyle Kenyon Engel wanted the Expeditor books to go in more of a spy novel direction. At any rate, here you will not find the things so familiar from previous volumes: no opening portion from Mr. Merlin’s perspective, no fancy gadgets, no remote fortress that John Eagle must cross hostile terrain to destroy.

This volume also appears to confirm a theory I’ve had that Eiden was the Expeditor author who apparently complained that Lory’s version of the character was too sexually active for someone who had a steady girlfriend.  Eiden is the only series author to give Eagle’s girlfriend, Ruth Lone Wolf (sometimes referred to as Ruth Lame Wolf, as she is here), any narrative time. Ruth factors heavily in the opening of Poppies Of Death, waking Eagle up at midnight to wish him happy birthday (his actual age is not stated, but we learn that the day itself is sometime in September) and gifting him with a Pulsar Date II watch, which she describes as “super-cool.”

Eagle is soon summoned to New York, where his clothing sizes are measured by Brubaker, a tight-lipped intelligence world figure. From there Eagle goes through eight weeks of flight training, so he can receive FAA certification as a four-engine jet pilot. Luckily, this material is wisely summarized in the narrative; you don’t have to read endless pages about Eagle learning how to fly large airliners. Finally he receives his mission; the Russians have copied the 707 in the form of a Soviet airliner called the TU-350. Eagle is to go to Moscow, hook up with his contacts there, and steal the plane.

How exactly this mission is suitable for Mr. Merlin’s one and only Expeditor is not mentioned. As for Mr. Merlin himself, his appearance here is reduced to a handful of lines, and indeed he comes off as a bit more callous than normal, almost taunting Eagle that he might very well not return from this particular mission. To make matters worse, Eagle himself spends the novel wondering why he was given this mission, as he is not trained in espionage, and thus he’s out of his element for the majority of the book.

One thing that stays true though is the native booty John Eagle must have. This would be Ludmilla, a gorgeous and stacked brunette Russian whose husband, an author, was killed by the KGB a year before, hence her sudden desire to defect. She turns out to be Eagle’s contact, and despite her frosty nature Eagle can’t help but check out her awesome bod: “Her breasts were so full and widely separated that their outer curves hid part of her upper arms.” Eiden actually writes this same description twice in the novel, so the lady must have some serious melons.

Ludmilla will be the navigator on the stolen plane; a Soviet Air Force instructor, she currently works as an oceanographer and has the luxury of her own car and apartment. Her accomplice, another Red Army Air Force pilot, is Aleksander Dobrodni, who will fly the stolen TU-350, with Eagle serving as co-pilot. All this stuff takes many pages to play out, with Eiden spending a lot of time with Eagle walking around Moscow and learning how its citizens try to work around the shackles of their oppressive society. There are no action scenes, no moments of suspense of tension.

There is, though, the already-mentioned sex scene. Eiden again proves himself the most explicit of the series authors, with Ludmilla, the night before they undertake the mission, inviting Eagle up to her apartment. In fact Eiden sort of rewrites one of the sex scenes from his previous installment, #9: The Deadly Cyborgs, with Eagle doing this weird “rotating” of his legs and hips so he can roll Ludmilla up onto his lap while he’s “ramming” her. Meanwhile Eagle discovers the poor girl’s ass is lacerated, something she’d been trying to hide from him. Turns out Dobrodni did it, the man being a “sadist” who gets off on whipping girls.

Instead of being outraged, Eagle instead mocks Ludmilla as a “masochist” and pretty much says she deserved it! Only after pleading with Eagle that she “had” to sleep with Dobrodni, so as to seduce him, does Eagle relent that the girl most likely didn’t want to get savagely whipped, after all. But then, Eagle himself is pretty callous, this time around; his first line in the novel, in fact, is a pissy keeper: “I loathe people who go through life saying, ‘I’m sorry!’”

Posing as an engineer named Higbee, Eagle spends the majority of the novel walking around Moscow in Higbee’s tweed suits and wondering why he’s on this assignment. It’s never a good idea to have your character constantly question why he was given a particular mission, for soon the reader begins to wonder the same thing. Countless times Eagle says he’s not cut out for espionage, though he’s obviously seen his share of Bond movies, as he introduces himself to Ludmilla thusly: “Eagle. John Eagle.”

Humorously, after a hundred pages of buildup, the actual theft of the TU-350 goes down in just a handful of pages, with hardly any tension, other than when police chase after the fleeing airliner and shoot at it. Eagle, Dobrodni, and Ludmilla take the plane to Turkey. Here we get lots of technical detail on how one can use celestial navigation to pilot a plane in the absence of Doppler radar, something Eiden informs us commercial Russian planes didn’t have at this time.

An intriguing thing about reading these old action paperbacks is how they can sometimes prefigure things that happened in the real world. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the various MH370 disappearance theories that have been floating around for the past several months. Those theorists who claim MH370 was stolen would have a field day with Poppies Of Death, which basically tells you how to steal an airliner, even how to construct an impromptu landing strip.

Anyway, Poppies Of Death is also similar to Valley Of Vultures in how the last quarter seems to be from an entirely different novel. Landing in Turkey, Eagle finds a truck filled with college-aged Turks, lead by an attractive girl named Shali. Ludmilla and Dobrodni are quickly shuffled out of the narrative, Ludmilla being sent on to her new oceanographer job in Boston and Dobrodni waiting at the impromptu airstrip for a fellow pilot to be smuggled in.

Mr. Merlin, who leaves Eagle an audio tape with instructions, informs Eagle that he is now to report to Shali and do whatever she says. This is after Eagle has coldly spurned the girl’s sexual advances. Shali turns out to be the daughter of Bektek, corrupt Minister of the Interior who is legally harvesting opium and selling it to the Mafia. Shali and her fellow radicals intend to destroy the opium plant, and Eagle is going to lead the mission. (At least this explains the book’s title.)

Eiden delivers another sex scene; it’s not only a short one, but it’s a strange one, as Eagle basically rapes Shali, “ramming” into her for all of a few seconds, so they can “get sex out of the way.” We’ll all recall the “man’s conquest” theme of the John Eagle Expeditor series, and that theme is very strong here, as Eagle resents how Shali enjoys taunting men with her sexuality, so he basically just screws her quickly. As for Shali, she seems to enjoy it, despite the brevity: “I’ve never been taken that way before.” Thus, per the series theme, the female has been conquered.

This takes us into the homestretch as Eagle leads the young radicals on the assault, but they’re all captured as they’re hauling away the opium in several trucks – the mission, finally explained to Eagle, is for him to put the opium back on the TU-350 so that Dobrodni and his fellow Russian co-pilot can fly it back into the USSR. At least, I think that’s the plan.

Finally employing his plastic suit and dart gun (which Eiden refers to as a “flechette pistol”), Eagle gets the upper hand by killing a few of Bedek’s cops – Eagle’s first kills in the novel, over 130 pages in. Like Stokes, Eiden has Eagle’s suit outfitted with a helmet, yet strangely it’s a helmet that can supposedly fit within the pockets of Eagle’s suit! Robert Lory had the smarter idea, making it a hood instead of a helmet. But this action material is quickly over, and unlike his previous volume Eiden doesn’t play up on the violence factor.

The final pages feature a last-second plot where Eagle takes on some New York Mafioso who are here in Turkey and are pissed that their opium has suddenly gone missing. Eagle, once again captured, tries to fool them into thinking he’s from the Montreal branch of the Mafia(?!), then provokes them to shoot each other. Then he gets in an anticlimactic fight with their resident karate master. Eagle of course makes short work of him in one of the more hasty fight scenes ever written.

Eagle then flies to Hawaii for a debriefing by Mr. Merlin, to finally get some answers on this particular assignment. Speaking through the usual audio hookup (Eagle has still never actually seen his boss), Mr. Merlin explains that this whole mission was basically a stab at fighting the drug problem – the opium has been destroyed, and the goal was to destroy it in a Russian plane on Turkish soil. Or something. Eagle tells Mr. Merlin to do something about the “goof ball” menace (by which he means amphetamines) and leaves. The end!

As for the writing itself, one thing I’ve failed to state is that I really enjoy Eiden’s style. He has a very readable prose, and despite the lack of action or suspense the novel was still somewhat entertaining. Eiden though does come off very much as a contract writer; unlike Lory there are no attempts at continuity. Even Eagle’s thumb injury, from Eiden’s own The Deadly Cyborgs, goes unmentioned, whereas the digit was nearly torn off of Eagle’s hand at the climax of that installment.

Long story short, Poppies Of Death is a misfire. Not the worst of the series (I think my least favorite volume, so far, was #6: The Glyphs Of Gold), but sort of a muddled misstep which has nothing to do with the well-established series formula. Here’s hoping Eiden’s next installment, which would be his last, gets things back on track.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Headhunters #3: Three Faces Of Death

The Headhunters #3: Three Faces Of Death, by John Weisman and Brian Boyer
October, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Once again coming off like a Blaxploitation movie in novel form, this installment of the Headhunters series again presents a colorful cast of streetwise criminals and terrorists and the titular cops who are always three steps behind them. While Three Faces Of Death doesn’t reach the lurid heights of the previous volume, it’s still a lot of trashy fun, churned out by two gifted authors.

Whereas the previous two volumes took place in grimy, crime-ridden Detroit, this one moves the locale to Chicago. According to the interview Justin Marriott published with series co-author John Weisman in Men Of Violence #2, other series author Brian Boyer had himself moved to Chicago after writing the second volume, taking a position with the Chicago Sun-Times. The two would continue writing together, taking turns each Friday to fly to one another’s homes. That’s some serious dedication to pulp, isn’t it??

But even though sometimes-ineffectual heroes Eddie Martin and Jake “T.S.” Putnam are in a new city this time around, it’s still just as grimy and crime-ridden as Detroit…mostly because it’s now filled with criminals from Detroit. Recurring series villain Henry Pacquette (obvious inspiration for Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction) has come to the Windy City with a legion of armed thugs to rescue one of his henchmen, Sonny Hope (who we learn this time is in fact Pacquette’s adopted son). Sonny is kidnapped in the opening pages along with a publishing scion named Jack Day, the abductors spiriting them away to Chicago and issuing their ransom demands.

As usual, the villains are given a lot more focus than the heroes, same as what Marc Olden did in the Narc series, but somehow here it’s just more enjoyable. Mostly because these authors are having fun, whereas Olden generally sticks to a grim and “serious” tone. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the Headhunter books are so Blaxploitation that you can almost hear the Luichi de Jesus soundtrack playing in your head. In fact, again according to the interview in Justin’s magazine, filmmaker Arthur Marks, who had directed Detroit 9000 (a Tarantino favorite, incidentally), approached the authors with the intent of making a Headhunters film, asking them to write a script which combined the first two volumes.

Obviously, the film was never made, but Weisman and Boyer are so adept at capturing their creations that a movie practically plays in your mind; they have a definite gift for getting the details, though sometimes the name-dropping does get to be a little grating, particularly when they provide inventories of the brands of clothing their characters wear. And as usual Pacquette’s men are dressed to the the nines in ‘70s fashions, as is Jake Putnam. Even the white characters get in on it, this time, with a recurring joke being the expensive wardrobes of the federal agents in Chicago, who are used to the good life.

Sonny and Day have been kidnapped by a pair of Palestinian brothers named Yusif and Abdul Karim, who claim to be of the Mideast People’s Army, Inc. Their leader is a transvestite German named Schwul who will occasionally don a blonde wig and become “Greta.” He also has a third personality, in which he speaks with an Irish brogue. Finally, he was in the Waffen SS in the war! The cover and first-page preview are cop-outs, by the way; both imply that Greta is a woman (the first-page blurb is even sluglined “A certain kind of bitch”!), which had me hoping for one of those pulpish female villains I so enjoy. But nope, Greta’s a dude.

There are several more Palestinian fighters in the group, and a few other Germans, all of them former Nazis, one of them with the awesome name Wolfmann Chack. They’ve abducted Sonny and Day, we eventually learn, due to the former’s connection to Henry Pacquette, in vengeance over the blow Pacquette and his organization delivered to Malcolm 4x Saladin and his Islamic militants in the previous volume. As for Day, the dude’s grandfather is uber-rich, and thus they demand they want like a hundred pounds of gold for the two.

Martin and Putnam are of course Internal Affairs officers, which as far as I’m concerned limits the kind of action they can get into. But the authors skirt this by having Day’s grandfather insist that they handle the case, given their friendship with Jack Day. At any rate the two of them fly over to Chicago and hook up with a bunch of well-dressed federal agents and lawyers, and try to figure out where and when Pacquette will strike. There’s a nice recurring joke in which Putnam, not prepared to fly, has a plastic bag of dirty clothes as “luggage.”

As usual, the authors provide some great camaraderie between Martin and Putnam, with them riffing on one another in much the same spirit as Warren Murphy employed in the Razoni & Jackson series, which was also being published by Pinnacle Books around this same time. To tell the truth, I actually prefer the Headhunters series; the riffing isn’t as frequent or funny, but the authors provide more engaging material, from gory shootouts to lurid sex scenes. Well, save for this particular volume – there isn’t a single sex scene in it. But it does feature a crazed “action” scene of utter sadism in which Pacquette and his hulking bodyguard Henry Dovell blow away a car full of Chicago cops.

Speaking of Pacquette, the authors add a few interesting touches to the former police chief turned crime czar. We’re now informed he has a “Fu Manchu” moustache – something likely mentioned before, but I’d forgotten it. But he also has been heightening his ESP powers, instructed by Dovell, a “master of extrasensory perception,” and there’s this weirdly cool scene where Pacquette exercises in a sauna and then sits in meditation, trying to mentally trace Sonny’s location. The scene features an even weirder climax in which Pacquette leaves the sauna, to find one of his goons butchered and gutted outside, with a note from the Mideast People’s Army pinned to the corpse.

And just as Marcellus Wallace would later promise to “get Medieval” on his enemies, Pacquette here vows to “use some Israeli Army tactics” on the terrorists. Thus he rents a touring bus, assembles forty of his best “murderers,” dresses them in outrageous golf gear (their weapons hidden in the golf bags), and heads for Chicago. Here they soon begin tearing the city apart, not that Schwul/Greta and his cronies aren’t also doing damage, killing innocent bystanders and cops. In fact, cops get wasted throughout Three Faces Of Death, and unlike the previous volumes they aren’t crooked cops.

Another element that returns from previous volumes is the in-jokery, with several Chicago Sun-Times personages mentioned in the narrative, usually in completely egregious ways, like photographer Randy Winker telling coworker Herb Larkin that hotstuff reporter Dallas Brooke is a nympho, and Larkin openly hitting on her, only to get karate-chopped. Whether these are real people or just fictional analogues of people Boyer worked with, I don’t know. But per Justin’s article on the series, Boyer and Weisman enjoyed peppering their books with in-jokes.

Three Faces Of Death features a strong action finale that Martin and Putnam for once take part in. Delivering up the ransom, Pacquette pulls a fast one by having an explosive created and coated in gold (a scene which features the priceless, too-short appearance of Pacquette’s armless and legless chemist). When Schwul and company repair to a foundry to melt the gold, chaos develops, with the Germans killing off the Palestinians (the money, we learn, is to rebuild the Reich, not to fund Palestine). A pitched battle ensues, with the cops arriving on the scene.

Of course, Martin and Putnam really just take cover and shoot a few people; the majority of the action is handled by Schwul and the Germans, who run around with shotguns, blasting everyone apart. Again, the authors aren’t shy about the gore, with unfortunate men getting their privates blasted apart in the melee. In fact, our heroes are still so uncomfortable around violence that Putnam even pukes before they head for the foundry. Putnam actually gets injured in the climax, we learn via dialog at the end, suffering a concussion and temporary blindness (due to the unexpected, devestating explosion of Pacquette’s secret explosives), but apparently he’s on the way to a complete recovery.

While it didn’t have the lurid factor of the previous two books (though the brothers Yusif and Abdul did take a lot of sick pleasure in killing victims with their “curved daggers”), Three Faces Of Death was still an enjoyable read, brimming with that funky ‘70s flavor I so enjoy. Unfortunately, the next volume was to be the last.