Thursday, January 8, 2015

Challenge At Le Mans (Don Miles #1)

Challenge At Le Mans, by Larry Kenyon
April, 1967  Avon Books

One of the more obscure series produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel, Don Miles only ran for four volumes, all of which were published by Avon in 1967. I’d never heard of it until I came across Will Murray’s 1981 interview with Engel, which was published in Paperback Parade #2 (1986), where Murray briefly mentioned “the Don Miles books.”

Engel’s response was that, at the time, he was into automative publications, and thus came up with an action hero/auto racer. However, in the interview Engel could no longer remember who had actually written the books. Thanks to James Reasoner, who posted here, we now know that the author was Lew Louderback, one of Engel’s writing stable who also wrote a volume or two of Nick Carter: Killmaster. I’m not familiar with Louderback, but it seems an article on fat acceptance he wrote back in 1967 is well-regarded today.

Anyway, as expected, Don Miles is basically like Nick Carter, only with an auto racer day job. Challenge At Le Mans, the first book of the series (none of the books were numbered), tells the tale of how Miles becomes an agent for SPEED, a highly-secret branch of US intelligence. Unusually enough for an early-model men’s adventure novel, this first volume takes the time to tell the origin story for our character, a gutsy 35 year-old Texan who, in addition to being mega-rich thanks to his oil prospecting father, is also a world famous racing champion.

Be prepared for lots of racing stuff; many, many paragraphs are devoted to how race cars run, the competitive circuit, pit crews, and the like. So then another series this is reminiscent of is The Mind Masters, only without the supernatural element or ultra-sleazy sex scenes – though, to be sure, there are many sex scenes in this novel. But, given the 1967 publication date, they aren’t all that raunchy. But at least they’re there.

In fact, we get one early on, as Don beds a hotstuff female reporter who has come down to Houston to check out the unveiling of Don’s new Panther racer, a car he himself has designed. Le Mans is coming up, and Don plans to unveil it there, winning with a US-built automobile. Lowderback proves himself a good pulp writer, with copious exploitation of the lady’s, uh, ample charms, though when it comes to the actual screwin’ he fades to black. So in other words, it’s about on par with what you’d read in a Killmaster novel from this time period.

But after he crashes the Panther in a test run for the journalists, Don’s life is changed forever. He wakes up in a hospital, where a man calling himself “Hedge” informs Don that he was not harmed in the wreck, but the accident could be used to cover a few months of secret training. Hedge, who wears a mask and distorts his voice, offers Don the opportunity to become a secret agent, using his globe-hopping, famous identity as the perfect cover story. Don, reflecting back on advice his dad once gave him(!), says “Sure.” Otherwise this series would’ve been even shorter.

Similar to Eric Saveman in The Smuggler, Don is taken through a few months of intense espionage training. After which he returns to his life as a race car driver, with two months of preparation before Le Mans; he’s informed he might never even be activated, but of course he promptly is, as soon as he arrives in France. Don’s first mission has him researching the mysterious death of a CIA operative, who was looking for a young German girl named Greta Thiess, a nuclear researcher who apparently murdered her mentor – a man who had just devised a new device that could make any nuclear device into a warhead.

Like Nick Carter, Don Miles has a trio of weapons he relies on, though he does not give them goofy names: a .25 magnum Sauer automatic, a ballpoint pen that fires poison-tipped needles, and a 16-inch piano wire which he uses as a garrotte, hiding it in specially-lined pockets of his pants. He also has a Mission: Impossible-style face mask, made of “Plastotex,” which turns him into “Mr. Nobody,” a face computer-designed to be forgotten as soon as it is seen. In addition to his gadgets, Don is also given new partners. First there’s Buck Garrett, a redneck engineer who speaks in the most painfully-rendered dialog ever.

In addition to being a super-skilled racing car engineer, Buck himself is a SPEED agent, and serves as Don’s conduit to another new partner, Sam Harris, who stays back in the US and acts officially as the CEO of Don’s racing enterprise. Harris, then, is like the David Hawk of the series, even though he doesn’t appear in this particular volume.

Similar to The Mind Masters, more focus is placed on the preparation for the race rather than the race itself (in fact, the novel ends just as the race begins). So then we get lots of scuttlebutt among the racers in Le Mans as they discuss the upcoming contest. The back cover mentions that Don will be going up against a gang of leather-clad biker women, and they show up promptly: they are the Devil Bombers, a gang of gorgeous German girls lead by Wilma Zeiss, an actress who recently appeared in a biker film. They terrorize Le Mans, driving on sidewalks and knocking aside pedestrians.

The gang is staying at a nearby chateau owned by Baroness Falkenhorst, aka Elga Winter, herself a once-famous actress who is apparently 30-something and of course stunningly beautiful, and a man-eater to boot. She is the villain of the piece, and she must be an unforgettable sight, with a magnificent body, red hair, silver nails, and white lipstick! She is infamous for tearing through professional racers, conveniently enough, but has yet to sink her hooks into Don Miles.

I found this “Baroness” stuff interesting, given Engel’s later Baroness series, which itself was credited to a “Kenyon” house name. Maybe this character provided some inspiration for the later Penelope St. John-Orsini? Baroness Falkenhorst is even once described as wearing the same outfit Penny wears on the Baroness covers, “a black outfit resembling a skin-tight track suit.” And as mentioned, she’s just as sexually-insatiable as the later Baroness.

As for Don Miles, he doesn’t come off so well on his first mission. He bumbles and stumbles throughout; first almost being crushed by a car that’s kicked on him. While investigating the car the CIA agent was driving when he had his fatal crash, Don is trapped when someone kicks the car off the cinder block that’s holding it up; he just manages to pull himself free. Later, he’s almost run over by a car. A later incident has him getting captured – while having sex with a woman who has clearly set him up for abduction. Later on, he’s captured yet again, and is only saved by a female accomplice.

Tracking the clues for the CIA agent’s murder leads Don to the chateau of the Baroness. It’s a pulpishly depraved place, with the Baroness entertaining the fifty-some biker chicks who are staying there with her, many of whom Don finds naked in the Baroness’s palatial-sized bedroom. There’s a fountain in there, an “opium lamp,” erotic posters, and a massive bed that has electronically controlled (and mirrored) floorboards and headboards. Would you be surprised that the Baroness promptly throws herself on Don?

A funny thing about the sex scenes is that Louderback will set us up with lots of anatomical detail, but then he’ll always fade to black with an ellipsis. However we are told enough to know that the Baroness is insatiable, doing Don “at least ten times” through the night, even waking him up for more. He finally beats a retreat, claiming exhaustion, only to get more German booty the next night, when he finds Ulla Kihss, daughter of another racer, waiting for him in his hotel bed.

We get another somewhat-explicit sex scene, followed by a quick ellipsis, as Don, despite suspecting something, quickly ravishes the hot blonde…only to realize at the last second it’s a trap. Louderback continues to make the plot overly complex; we learn Ulla is a secret agent for SD-3, the French version of the CIA, and her boss, a man named Dimanche, drugs Don in order to figure out if Don is really a secret agent. Thanks to his training, Don is able to fool Dimanche, who goes on to request that Don begin working for SD-3, given his “relationship” with the Baroness – as it turns out that the Baroness is aligned with an East German spy group called SPIDER, and likely has the nuclear McGuffin hidden in her chateau.

Have you noticed how busy all of this is getting? Louderback keeps piling on new plots and characters, and doing precious little to exploit that which he has already created. Like those biker chicks. Forget about them! They appear in maybe three scenes, and usually for only a few sentences. How a pulp author could write a book that features a gang of gorgeous female bikers and do nothing with them blows my mind. But there are no scenes where Don, uh, “consorts” with any of them, and when one of the biker girls is taken out, it’s not even by Don (Ulla does it), and it happens off-page.

In his review of Louderback’s Killmaster novel Danger KeyKurt Reichenbaugh states that Louderback pretty much does the same thing in that Nick Carter novel; he just keeps piling on the characters and the subplots. This results in the fact that Challenge At Le Mans feels a lot longer than it really is – unlike the Killmaster novels of the era, which are quick reads, this one is at times an uphill struggle.

Louderback does try to factor Don Miles’s racing background into the climax, but still it’s a bit tepid because Don is such a waste of a spy – honestly, he’s knocked out, captured, and hoodwinked throughout the entire novel. But anyway he spends most of the finale driving back and forth from France to the Alps in a souped-up VW built for him by Buck Garrett. Here we learn that he does not have a “speed threshhold” and can go incredibly fast without fear.

Don’s racing around looking for the nuclear McGuffin, Ulla riding with him, as the Baroness has taken it to her castle in the Alps. Even here though we do not get much of an action scene, and Don’s kills are limited to three or four SPIDER agents back in France, in the very final pages. In fact, he does nothing to prove himself as a capable agent, even though the SD-3 guys gush all over him for “saving Europe.” But he’s a dolt, fooled throughout by the women of the tale – any idiot could easily figure out who Ulla Kihss really is.

Also, there really isn’t a memorable send-off for any of the villains; the Baroness, despite being built up as this man-eating tigress, is dispatched almost casually (and not even by Don), and when the real villain is uncovered, Don’s more shocked than spurred to action. What I’m saying is, he’s no Nick Carter. You’d think perhaps that was Louderback’s point, that Don is an untried agent, this being his first assignment, but instead he’s played up as a primo shit-kicker. So in other words it comes off as unintentionally humorous; Don Miles, in this adventure at least, is in the Mitchell class of heroes.

At 160 pages of small print, Challenge At Le Mans does not exactly “speed” by; in fact, it’s less like Don’s Panther and more like my old VW Rabbitt (which my friends and I always called “the Joe Weider car,” because it didn’t have power steering and you got one hell of a workout turning the steering wheel). But even still, it was enjoyable for the most part, just a little too harried with too many characters and plots, and too little action – not to mention a protagonist who came off as a bit ineffective.


Grant said...

Since I'm so big on villainess characters, and since you've read this so recently, I'd like to ask for a spoiler about just how the Baroness is "dispatched."
I just hope it isn't that overused female good guy / female bad guy girl-fight scene idea, not because I just plain hate that, but BECAUSE it's overused.

Kurt said...

Here's another series you've introduced that I've never heard of before. Now I'll keep my eye out for any of these books in my travels. And thanks for the shout out to my Nick Carter review.

Joe Kenney said...

Guys, thanks for the comments.

Grant -- obviously your question results in a spoiler answer, but since you's sort of along the lines you suspect, but a little different. Don Miles's female colleague straight-up murders the Baroness, shooting her point-blank. It's unexpected and kind of sucks, because she made for a good villain. But it's not really a good female vs. bad female situation, as Miles's female colleague isn't really "good."

Grant said...

Thank you.
Too bad, though, since I almost always prefer those man / woman showdowns, especially the ones that DON'T involve guns on the man's part.
(As I've said before, I can practically "blame" it on that big THUNDERBALL scene. That scene involves a gun, but in a cleverly indirect way.)

halojones-fan said...

The secret organization is called SPEED? You can see how these guys ended up writing for 80s boy's cartoon series...

Matthew said...

I actually think there was an 80s cartoon with a similar plot.

halojones-fan said...

You mean Pole Position?

"From now on, as your parents did..."