Thursday, February 26, 2015

Depth Force #4: Battle Stations

Depth Force #4: Battle Stations, by Irving A. Greenfield
July, 1985  Zebra Books

Once again coming off like the men’s adventure equivalent of a soap opera, the Depth Force series continues with this fourth novel that picks up immediately after the events of the previous volume, with not one word of helpful background material to catch up the reader.

Battle Stations follows the same template as that third volume; the first quarter wraps up events that began in the final quarter of the previous volume, and then the narrative moves on to documenting the harried, soap opera-like life of hero Jack Boxer, captain of the experimental nuclear sub The Shark. And like that previous installment, the “main plot” of Battle Stations doesn’t even get started until the final quarter of this volume, with events once again unresolved, so that the fifth volume will pick up the thread and continue the cycle…

As we’ll recall, Boxer was in Russian waters in the Arctic when last we met him, having exfiltrated a group of spies while at the same time kidnapping a bunch of KGB agents, including the head of that agency. When Battle Stations opens Boxer is still in the midst of this life-or-death battle. Only through the deus ex machina crash of a US plane in the ocean is the Shark able to evade the radar of the Sea Savage, the Russian equivalent of the Shark which is captained by Borodine, a noble sort of dude who harbors much respect for Boxer, and vice versa. However they both understand that they will kill one another in open combat if the opportunity arises.

Once the Sea Savage leaves the area, Borodine mistakenly believing he’s destroyed the Shark, Boxer must navigate his ship through the hostile ice-fields of the Arctic ocean. This sequence goes on forever. As with the previous volume, “action” is mostly relayed via dialog, and boring “naval” dialog at that, with Boxer shouting orders to his sailors. Meanwhile, back in the US, Admiral Stark (Boxer’s friend and mentor) bickers with Kinkade (wily CIA chief who hates Boxer). The latter is more so concerned about the KGB abductees, and rails on and on about how Boxer refuses orders (the Shark is owned by the CIA, by the way).

When the Shark finally gets back to friendly waters, Boxer returns to DC and is reuninted with Stark. Here the soap opera vibe resumes; last volume, Boxer hooked up with a pretty nurse named Louise Collins. Kinkade we learned didn’t like this relationship – because Louise was black, and a radical black, at that. So, behind the scenes, he’s paid her lots of money to leave Boxer a “dear John” letter and hit the road. She’s done just that, and now Boxer reels at his loss, not knowing that Kinkade was behind it all. He was “in love” with Louise and etc, blah blah blah…not that this matters, as once again Boxer scores with many women in explicit detail.

In the brief action denoument of Bloody Seas, a Shark sailor named Redfern was killed (Greenfield by the way is notorious for not reminding or even informing readers who the characters are, nor what they do on the ship). Apparently Boxer was close to this dude, and thus goes to a dinner party held in the home of his father-in-law, Senator Sam Ross; also there is Sue-Ann, Redfern’s attractive widow. After getting in a fight with a McCarthy-esque senator named McElroy, Boxer repairs to his guest room…and what reader will be surprised when Sue-Ann shows up by his bed that night?

“I want to be fucked,” announces the recently-widowed woman, and after like a second of deliberation Boxer grants her wish. One of Greenfield’s typically-graphic sex scenes ensues, complete with thorough description of oral venturings and deep plungings. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy for writing stuff like this – this genre should be filled with filth. But this is just a one-time fling, announces Sue-Ann, and besides she just wishes the Russians would give back Redfern’s body, as it’s still back there on Russian soil. Boxer determines to use his “friendship” with Borodine to get the body back.

There’s no action, no thrills -- Battle Stations is really more along the lines of the trashy novels Greenfield penned in the ‘70s, with a bit of a “political suspense” overlay. This is mostly through Kinkade, who schemes against Boxer throughout, as well as Senator McHugh, who makes it his career to “destroy” Boxer publically. In this McHugh and Kinkade become allies. But the novel is mostly relegated to scenes of Boxer driving around DC and talking to various people about thing he’s done and things he plans to do. Seriously, most of the dialog throughout the novel is of an incendental nature. (Ie, “Where would you like to go for dinner tonight?” and the like.)

Plot developments from the previous book are lost – for example, General Yeotev, the KGB leader who was shot in the knees before his capture, is only given passing mention. Instead we get bizarre, out-of-nowhere stuff like Boxer’s mother dying after her home’s broken into and she’s beaten by thugs(!?). As I said, it’s all very much like a soap opera, mostly because the series seems to be more about Captain Jack Boxer’s love life. This is evidenced with the appearance of Lt. Cynthia Lowe, Admiral Stark’s secretary, and apparently a character who either last appeared in volume 1 or 2; as usual, Greenfield does nothing to fill us in.

But at any rate Cynthia and Boxer were once an item, and somehow, prior to Bloody Seas, they broke off, and on bad circumstances at that. Boxer sees that she’s back on duty when he visits Stark (why exactly she was off duty is also unexplained), and after initial hostilities on Cynthia’s part Boxer is able to get her out on a date – and, of course, back in the sack. Cue more graphic sex as they exuberantly fuck, making up for lost time. But before that can happen, Boxer is cockblocked…shot by a cop!!

Bloody Seas featured a goofy bit where Boxer got in a bar fight with some thugs who were against the fact that his date for the evening, Louise Collins, was black. Battle Stations features an early moment where Boxer blithely tells the bartender at this same bar that he’d fight those assholes again. Well, it soon happens – but after Boxer’s beaten them, pulling a gun to defend himself, some cops come in and shoot him by accident. Or something like that. While Boxer recovers, Cynthia warms up to him.

More soap opera stuff – Boxer and Cynthia go on a yacht cruise, which Sue-Ann also attends. She gets drunk and starts screaming at Boxer in front of everyone about being a horrible leader, how he got her husband killed, and also how he was so quick to jump in the bed of his husband’s widow! Seriously it’s all like Days of Our Lives or something. Then Sue-Ann’s on her knees apologizing, and then Boxer and Cynthia are back in his stateroom, once again exuberantly fucking…

Now Boxer’s in Paris, where the Russians have said they’ll hand over Redfern’s body. Meanwhile Borodine has been cornered by the KGB to set up his “friend” Boxer for death. Boxer meets Borodine’s ex-wife, Maria Dodin (aka Glena) here, where she works for the US – a completely superfluous scene, though Greenfield fools us by describing how “impossibly beautiful” Maria is; normally this would be instant grounds for another sex scene. Instead Boxer gets his booty from the most unexpected source – Trish, the gorgeous young wife of Senator McHugh, aka the dude who is trying to destroy Boxer. Oh, and Trish also happens to be the granddaughter of Kinkade!

Any nitwit would suspect something, especially after the blowup Boxer had with the McHughs early in the novel, yet when Boxer receives an invite to dinner with the McHughs while in Paris, he ends up going – only to find a sexily-dressed Trish waiting there for him alone. When Greenfield mentioned her incredible cleavage, I immediately knew where it was going. One thing he did surprise me on was that Trish McHugh actually ends up falling in love with Boxer; in other words, the backstabbing playout I suspected doesn’t happen. She is here on her own free will, not sent here by McHugh to “distract” Boxer.

Trish ends up being the most frequent bedmate of Boxer this volume, and the one who receives the most explicit scenes; like the last book, Greenfield once again graces us with a sex scene that features the word “bung hole.” We also get Trish’s memorable declaration: “I’m going to come quickly.” But hey, remember how the KGB was going to kill Boxer here in Paris? This is where that goofy “Boxer’s mom gets killed by burglars” subplot arises, and our hero is called away suddenly to attend her funeral, thus unwittingly dodging his planned assassination – and the entire “Redfern’s body being returned” element is hastily dropped.

Now the plot’s all about McHugh’s attack on Boxer, and it’s dumb because the dude is aware that his wife is screwing Boxer, but doesn’t care. However he almost succeeds in destroying Boxer anyway, only saved when someone (perhaps someone sent by Admiral Stark) shows up with photos of Boxer and Trish together in bed. McHugh drops his case in shame, less the photos be revealed, and ends up divorcing Trish, who happily announces she wants to be with Boxer. Oh and meanwhile Cynthia is long out of the picture, having gotten into another spat with Boxer, who had only been considering her for an “easy fuck,” with no intention of a relationship.

Only in the final pages does the plot announced on the back cover come into play. Basically, the crew of a Russian sub mutinies, and the Sea Savage is sent off to destroy the sub before it can reach western waters. The Shark hurries to get there first, only to find the Sea Savage nearly destroyed after a confrontation with its sister ship. Now Borodine and crew are trapped on the bottom of the ocean, their oxygen running out. Boxer ignores orders from Kinkade and vows to save them. By the way, Kincade’s had a heart attack, after a confrontation with Boxer over his granddaughter…strangely, Kincade wants Boxer to marry the girl, despite how much he hates the man.

The Shark manages to save the crew of the Sea Savage, and the Russians plan to overtake the ship, a fine way to show their gratitude. Meanwhile Boxer’s about to get laid by his fourth woman in the book, hot KGB agent Dr. Suslov, who comically enough first offers herself to Borodine while the Sea Savage is stuck on the ocean floor (they are however unable to do the deed, thanks to the Shark’s timely arrival), and then later that same day waltzes into Boxer’s stateroom and informs him that she wants some good lovin,’ pronto.

But then the klaxons go off, and Boxer sends a still-unsated Suslov back to her quarters, with orders to shoot on sight if she attempts to flee. Now Boxer must contend with Borodine and his crew, who have taken over part of the Shark. And here, the action finally growing heated in the final few pages, Battle Stations comes to an inconclusive end – to be continued next time.

Unfortunately volume 5 is one I don’t have, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

And a curious final note – whereas the previous volume was stated as taking place in the “future” year of 1997, this one is stated as taking place in 1995! In fact it’s expressly stated that the last portion of the novel occurs in October of 1995 – yet this book clearly takes place after the previous volume. Maybe the Shark is the USS Eldridge of its day, unstuck in time due to some Philadelphia Experiment…?

Not that Boxer would notice…he’d be too busy exuberantly fucking.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Katmandu Contract (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #98)

The Katmandu Contract, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1975  Award Books

By this point in the Nick Carter: Killmaster saga, series creator/producer Lyle Kenyon Engel was gone, and the books were solely in the hands of publisher Award Books. Rather than a small stable of authors who turned out a guided series, Nick Carter: Killmaster was now farmed out to an ever-changing lineup of freelance authors, and any sense of a continuing storyline was gone.

One of these new authors was James Fritzhand, who wrote a total of three volumes between 1974 and 1976. Fritzhand was a “literary” author, his first publication being a Pynchonesque tome titled Son Of The Great American Novel, which was released with much fanfare in 1971 and apparently was a major bomb, not even scoring a paperback edition until 1978. (I have it and tried reading it, but just wasn’t feeling it.) Soon afterwards Fritzhand began publishing trashy Hollywood-themed paperbacks, eventually becoming a writer on TV shows like Hotel and Falcon Crest.

But before that he wrote his little trilogy of Killmaster novels. One of the interesting things about this series is that you can excise installments written by the various authors, for what in essence amounts to mini-series within the main series itself. What I’m trying to say is, if The Katmandu Contract is any indication, then Fritzhand’s contributions really do read like a trilogy, as throughout this book he constantly refers back to his previous installment.

Anyway, I once again have Zwolf to thank, as his review really had me wanting to read this book. I found The Katmandu Contract a little more “suspense-thriller” heavy than Zwolf did, though he’s got a definite point that Nick Carter’s taken to Sonny Chiba proportions here; he’s such a martial arts wizard that he can tear people apart with his bare hands. But while the fighting is frequent and well described (if a little too heavy on the technical terminology), for the most part the book is more in the vein of a standard sort of Cold War thriller.

The martial arts feel comes though from the start, as Carter takes us through a few rounds with his all-important (yet likely never before mentioned) Korean karate instructor, Master Chin, who is so floored with Nick’s abilities that he’s dubbed him “The Fist.” From his sparring session Carter’s briefed by boss David Hawk on his latest mission – he’s to find whoever abducted the teen children of Senator Chuck Caulfield, a personal friend of Hawk’s.

Actually, Carter’s to both rescue the kids and kill the abductors. All that’s known is that they’re a terrorist organization calling themselves Sherpa, and they operate out of Nepal, their goal to oust the current rulers. They want a billion dollars worth of uncut diamonds in return for the kids. (Amusingly enough, the actual ransom note only specifies “million,” yet throughout the novel everyone keeps saying “billion.”)

Here the spy thriller stuff commences, as rather than flying to Nepal and unleashing hell, Carter instead flies to Amsterdam to go about turning a billion dollars of AXE funds into uncut diamonds. Also, he’s to do all of this on the hush-hush, as it’s to be kept ultra-secret. He’ll even have to smuggle the diamonds into Nepal. Not that any of this keeps Carter from picking up a hot babe on the flight – Andrea Yuen, an American grad student on her way to Holland for research.

Instead she ends up in bed with Carter, though Fritzhand doesn’t provide any details, other than a goofy bit where Carter informs us that he “buries” his face between her legs. Andrea will prove to be Carter’s only conquest in the novel, another departure from earlier volumes. And also Carter’s a bit more unhinged this time, suspecting Andrea might be an enemy agent, even though he himself picked her up on the plane – even barging in on her aisle while she sat there minding her own business, reading a book!

But when Andrea’s shot by a sniper, obviously she’s cleared by the suddenly-paranoid Killmaster, and off he goes through the streets and canals of Amsterdam in pursuit. This is an endless chase scene which introduces Kunwar, who for the most part is the villain of the piece – a hulking Nepalese karate master who has filed his teeth vampire style. Rather than being the comic book-like villain I expected, Kunwar is instead one of those types given to grand, polite speeches in between the bloody fistfights.

Also this sequence introduces the recurring motif of Kunwar getting away each time Carter goes after him. But meanwhile Carter’s hands are busy with smuggling the diamonds – which he’s gotten from an Amsterdam fence – out of the country, while both evading a suspicious cop and also keeping up on Andrea’s progress at the hospital. Once again the Killmaster has practically fallen in love with a gal, and there are many scenes where he keeps phoning or visiting the hospital, desperate to know if a still-comatose Andrea will survive her surgery.

After another action sequence, which sees Carter’s taxi flying into the Amsterdam canals, our hero takes off for Kabul, Afghanistan. Andrea’s still comatose, her big surgery coming up, but Carter has a timetable. And besides he’s more concerned with informing us of how uncomfortable his stomach feels. After a lot of deliberation we learn that it’s because he’s swallowed a bag which contains the jewels; the bag is secured to a fishing line which is anchored to a hidden compartment in one of Carter’s teeth!

Promptly upon arrival in Kabul Carter is again waylaid by Kunwar, and Fritzhand has built up a nice revenge angle here, as Carter’s just raring to kill the dude. At great length he does, and meanwhile he starts to figure that Kunwar was really working for Prince Bal Narayan of Nepal, rather than the Sherpa terrorists. Fritzhand develops a convoluted storyline in which Narayan, who is ostensibly a member of Sherpa, is secretly working against them, looking to score the diamonds for himself.

We get a taste of a long-gone era as Carter hangs out in the Cabin restaurant, Nepal, which is frequented by hippies and stoners – Carter is especially taken aback by their strange, drug-world lingo, in particular the line “Ripped to the tits.” Here he meets his Sherpa contacts, and they appear to just be college-aged Nepalese radicals. Their leader is even better: Kanti, the gorgeous, 35 year-old “spirit” of the organization.

Fritzhand shocks the expectations of veteran readers of the Killmaster series by not writing a sex scene between Carter and the lady, even though he constantly reminds us of how gorgeous and busty she is. Instead, the two trade verbal barbs, before eventually getting into yet another kung-fu fight; Kanti is a regular Angela Mao, and practially beats the shit out of Carter.

All this is after Carter has exchanged the diamonds for the kids – and speaking of almost-sex scenes, Fritzhand also toys with the reader a bit by having Carter inform us how attractive Senator Caulfield’s teenaged daughter is. I’m sure he did this on purpose, having fun with the genre expectations, making the reader wonder if he’d really go all the way with it. But after depositing the kids on a flight back to the US, Carter heads back to Sherpa HQ, hidden in the caves of Nepal, to both reclaim the diamonds and kill the abductors.

Instead he’s caught, his ass kicked by Shanti, and Lu Tien, the Red China military adviser on the scene, insists that this captured man is none other than the infamous N3 of AXE. But we’re in the homestretch, and after a quick escape and hasty battle, Carter disposes of the Red Chinese, Shanti, and the rest of Sherpa in one of the more anticlimactic finales I’ve yet read, just throwing a bunch of grenades at them. He then takes the time to finish of Prince Narayan before reclaiming the jewels.

And we’ll all breath a sigh of relief to know that Andrea Yuen, back in Amsterdam, has made a complete recovery – per series regulations Carter lets us know the two will be taking a nice long vacation together. Meanwhile he’d be back the following month, in another installment by another author, but Fritzhand wouldn’t return until the following year, with The List, which would be his final contribution to the series.

Overall I found The Katmandu Contract mostly enjoyable, and I liked the badass Killmaster we got in the martial arts scenes, but overall I felt this one was too much in the vein of the later installments of the series, ie ones like Blood Raid, which went for “realism.” But Fritzhand’s writing is good, if too literary for the genre; there’s a lot of fancy word-spinning, metaphors, and analogies getting in the way of the violence (which is minimally described) and the sex (which is not described).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Spider #15: The Red Death Rain

The Spider #15: The Red Death Rain, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1934  Popular Publications

I splurged on this volume of The Spider: when I read that The Red Death Rain was considered one of the more outrageous novels in the series, with it’s Yellow Peril threat, sexpot female villain, and a character raped to death by an orangutan, I decided I would in fact seek out a reprint of the original magazine, complete with the interior illustrations, just to replicate the full pulp experience.

Unfortunately, The Red Death Rain was not one of the novels included in Girasol’s 25-volume “Pulp Doubles” reprint series, nor was it reprinted by Bold Ventures or Pulp Adventures Press, all three of which reprinted novels with the illustrations. It was however reprinted by Caroll & Graf in the early ‘90s, but no illustrations were included with those reprints. My only option, then (other than trying to find the original 1934 printing and shelling out my life savings for it), was to acquire another Girasol publication – that of the “Pulp Replica.”

Girasol is mostly known for publishing exact replicas of old pulp magazines, even down to the typos and sometimes-blurry print. The original advertisements, editorials, and interior illustrations are also included. Sounds great, and looks great, but the price isn’t great…they retail for $39.95 each. Luckily, I got my copy of Girasol’s The Red Death Rain replica on “sale”…for a mere $29.99. I chalked it up as an Xmas present to myself.

And I’m only halfway kidding, because The Red Death Rain actually takes place during Christmas. Christmas of 1934, to be exact, which resulted in an interesting experience as I read the book exactly 80 years after it was published. And this novel truly is of another era, something encapsulated by the primary threat: namely, that smokers are dying from poisoned tobacco.

It might not be a very large slice of the demographic these days, but in 1934 practically everyone smoked…and, per the usual method of Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page, they are dying some quite gory deaths because of it. As the novel opens, Richard Wentworth, the Spider himself, watches in hiding as a group of people stumble out of a tobacco shop, vomiting blood and dying horrible deaths as they shudder and twitch on the sidewalk.

Wentworth is here due to a tip from his “friend,” Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick. Someone has apparently issued a warning to the Spider, threatening him that his “latest case” would have its beginnings outside this very tobacco shop that night. Now, as stated, Norvell Page had a long-simmer “does Kirkpatrick know Wentworth is the Spider or not” storyline which ran the entire ten years he wrote this series, but here once again it seems patently clear that Kirkpatrick does know. The narrative even plainy states it.

Wentworth, who is in a new disguise, that of Cockney-voiced Snuffer Dan Tewkes, rushes into the tobacco shop, only to be accused by the young owner, a man named Steve Jardin, that Wentworth himself is the one who poisoned the tobacco. However, this is the first time our hero has ever stepped foot in the shop. Clearly this is a setup, but “Master of Men” Wentworth can tell that Steve Jardin believes he’s speaking the truth; he really believes that Wentworth was in the shop earlier that day.

The clear culprit, as far as Wentworth is concerned, is a “skeletal man” he saw exit the shop moments before the bloody chaos erupted within. But Wentworth has bigger fish to fry; Commissioner Kirkpatrick arrives, chomping at the bit to arrest Wentworth. I forgot to mention that seconds before the people began dying in the shop, Wentworth heard the voice of his fiance, Nita Van Sloan, calling for him – a warning about Kirkpatrick. But Nita’s disappeared (and remains gone for practically the entire novel), and now here’s Kirkpatrick, acting like a completely different person.

Not only that, but Kirkpatrick’s acting like he wants to flat-out kill Wentworth. Plus he’s blaming him for the poisoned tobacco, fully buying Steve Jardin’s story, and claims no knowledge of providing Wentworth with the written-in threat which brought Wentworth here in the first place.  In other words, he’s acting like he’s lost his mind, and the veteran pulp reader will automatically suspect mind control is at work, though Wentworth takes forever to figure this out.

In what must be an often-used device in the Spider series, Wentworth is actually arrested; this leads to a thrilling escape sequence, which includes Wentworth knocking Kirkpatrick out cold and then impersonating him, even snipping off a few locks of the commissioner’s hair to fashion into a false moustache! Returning to his posh penthouse on Fifth Avenue, Wentworth is able to use his disguise to get around the police cordon that surrounds it.

Upstairs, though, he’s confronted by a pair of “oriental” intruders; further, he discovers his loyal charges Jackson and Ram Singh tied up. Wentworth blows away the intruders, then stamps his infamous Spider seal on their corpses and dumps them off the side of the building -- his building. Our hero doesn’t go to much trouble to guard his secret identity, does he?

Another person happens to be waiting in Wentworth’s home: Steve Jardin, who not only claims that his girlfriend Delia has been kidnapped (and accusing Wentworth of abducting her), but also that he’s been sent here by Kirkpatrick himself – to kill Wentworth! More proof that the police commissioner has gone insane – or, as Wentworth begins to suspect, is actually working with the tobacco poisoners. After convincing the young man of his innocence, Wentworth gets information from him.

Jardin’s lawyer is a “skeletally thin” man named Dewitt Ahearn, and he did in fact visit the tobacco shop tonight. Now, Ahearn has gone to visit the palatial home of cult founder Deacon Coslin, a faux-“puritan” minister who you won’t be surprised to know is rotten to the core. And guess what his spiel is: preaching against the “evils” of smoking. In fact, Coslin has “prophesized” that more people will soon die from the poisoned tobacco.

Off Wentworth goes in the dead of night – disguised as the Spider! In this early volume we learn that the Spider disguise – with the wig of lank hair, the hunchback, the big nose, and the fangs – has a name of its own: “Tito Caliepi.” Apparently under this guise, posing as a streetcorner violinist, Wentworth only has to make a few makeup changes (ie, donning the fangs, etc), and he changes from an “old Italian violinist” into the fearsome presence who is the Spider. In the later volumes I’ve read, it appears that this Tito Caliepi bit has been dropped: the hunchback, fangs, and etc are the Spider look.

Wentworth sneaks onto the rolling grounds of Deacon Coslin, who lives in a veritable fortress, guarded by “great black negroes” who are “turbanned and naked above the waist.” Instead of running into one of them, Wentworth instead finds himself sneaking into a darkened bedroom occupied by a gorgeous Chinese woman – one who not only doesn’t even flinch at the bizarre, shambling figure who has just broken into her room, but who is also holding a gun on him.

This is Wu Ya Che, who stands there in nothing more than a silk nightgown which is “draped about the rounded maturity of her body,” thus perfectly showing off her “magnificent breasts.” Indeed, Page will often go on about Ya Che’s awesome boobs, and her silky black hair’s not bad, either. With her exotic looks and “high cheekbones,” Wentworth surmises that she is of Mongolian descent. She also comes quite close to breaking Wentworth’s steadfast resolve; our hero is completely in love with Nita Van Sloan, an idealized, romantic love which, Page wants us to know, isn’t sullied by sex (because they aren’t yet married, naturally!).

We immediately know that Ya Che’s our kind of gal, as she lounges back on her bed and basically offers herself to Wentworth…while he’s in the hideous disguise of the Spider. This is just the first of her many attempted seductions of our hero. And this is just the first of Wentworth’s many refusals; still pretending to be “an old man” and not the Spider (to which a disbelieving Ya Che responds, “When you look at me, you are not an old man”), Wentworth hobbles out of the room. Ya Che’s dad is Wu Chang, also here in Coslin’s mansion, a venerable old Chinese man who gradually becomes Wentworth’s top suspect.

More chases with the cops, more deaths from the poisoned tobacco, and again Wentworth is alone against everyone. Having ditched the Spider disguise (again, per the early novels, he doesn’t wear it much), Wentworth eventually fingds himself in a cab on Broadway and 61st, where a potential stampede threatens to erupt, due to the rampant bloody deaths of the tobacco; a memorable incident with a department store Santa almost getting stomped to bloody ribbons. But it only gets more memorable, as Wentworth, to prevent mass chaos, takes up a flute and leads the rioters in a rendition of “Silent Night!”

Surely one of the more over-the-top moments one will ever read, this jawdropping sequence has the riotous, insane rabble of New York City gradually singing along with Wentworth, who Pied Piper style has successfully captured his audience with his music and his singing. And even the almost-killed Santa and a couple kids help him out! What’s most awesome is the scene isn’t saccharine; it’s instead so nuts that you just have to laugh. But then, that’s the power of Norvell Page’s prose; he’s so invested in it that he convinces you it all really could happen.

One problem with The Red Death Rain is that the first half doesn’t feature much of the gory violence the series is known for, operating more as a mystery as Wentworth shuttles from one lead to another, desperately trying to figure out who is behind the tobacco poisoning. But around the midway point things kick in gear – the first sign being when Wentworth shoots a thug point-blank in the head during a firefight along an elevated train platform. This is after he’s discovered that the poison is spread by “spring water bottle” delivery trucks; Wentworth chases the poisoners down, blowing them away without mercy.

Wentworth is knocked out, captured. He ends up in a torture room, in wich that damn “skeletal man” appears – wearing a veiled mask. Soon he is referred to as the “Crimson Veil,” and he too is Chinese. As they gut another prisoner to death, Wentworth frees himself, knocks out the chamber’s only light, and a bloody fight ensues. More memorable images, like when Wentworth leans on the torture victim’s corpse and it groans, the air squeezing out of it, thus scaring the superstitious Chinese Wentworth is fighting.

Page just runs with it, with Wentworth hiding beneath the corpse and continuing to press on it, continuing to make it “speak.” He even tries out a ghostly voice, pretending to be the spirit of the deceased! But while his underlings cower, the Crimson Veil is not fooled. Wentworth still manages to gut the torturer with his own knife. An escape, more confusion, and now Wentworth has descended again upon Chinese sexpot Ya Che; he realizes with a jolt that it’s Christmas Eve.

Page delivers a somewhat-moving flashback to the plans Wentworth and Nita had made for this evening. But she’s still missing, kidnapped by whoever is behind this fiendish plot. But no more time for emotions; Wentworth and Ya Che enter her temporary home, only to walk in on an assassination attempt upon her father. As old Wu Chang is knifed, Ya Che almost casually pulls a small pistol from her purse (she also carries a dagger in “the throat of her dress”) and starts blasting away at the Chinese assassins. When Wentworth prevents her from killing the only survivor, in the hopes that they can follow him, she almost goes insane with rage.

But they follow after, and soon Wentworth is knocked out again, but not after he’s killed the elusive Crimson Veil. When Wentworth comes to, he’s in a private chamber in the catacombs beneath the city, and days have passed; it’s December 30th. Ya Che, sexy and tempting as ever, is at his side. She claims that they are both the prisoner of the Red Mandarin, the schemer behind it all. Wentworth, injured from a concusion, is lead into the massive chamber where the villain resides; wearing a “mitred hat” with a red veil covering his face, the Red Mandarin is surrounded by burly Mongol warriors who wield broadswords.

The Red Mandarin gives Wentworth a choice – give his word that he will work for the Mandarin, and Wentworth will go free. If not, then Nita Van Sloan will suffer a horrendous fate. To prove his word, the fiend lets Wentworth see the poor girl. Locked in a cell, wearing the skimpy, revealing clothing of a harem slave (which shows off her “exquisite breasts” and apparently well-compliments her “glorious chestnut hair”), Nita is in the cell beside a lust-crazed orangutan. If Wentworth doesn’t agree to do the Mandarin’s bidding…the orangutan will be set loose upon Nita!

The Red Mandarin wants Wentworth to kill three men for him. One of them is Police Commissioner Stanley Kirkpatrick. Wentworth pleads for a day to consider. When he’s sent back to his opulent chamber-cell, he is confronted with another offer: namely, the sexual temptress who is Wu Ya Che. She comes on to him very hard, and a guy would be hard-pressed to say no to her. And Page writes this sequence so that you think, if only for a moment, that Wentworth actually gives in to the woman’s ample charms.

But it turns out to just be a fake; as after a few lines of white space we come back to the scene, only to be informed that Wentworth has in fact spurned the lusty woman’s advances. Now Ya Che is inflamed with another passion – hatred. She wants to see Wentworth suffer and die. From here on out she no longer pretends to be a captive – she is in fact in league with the Red Mandarin, and indeed wants to see Wentworth suffer miserably before he dies. Plus she’ll also ensure that Nita gets raped to death by that damn orangutan.

Wentworth manages to escape his cell and starts killing with glee. Running roughshod through the catacombs, “berserk with killing rage,” Richard Wentworth murders countless Mongol guards in bloody combat, sometimes using his bare hands. Desperation compels him; the Red Mandarin plans to unleash his poison on countless public places at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Have I mentioned that, by this point, five thousand people have already died?

Page does not disappoint with the finale, which sees more mass bloodshed in the Red Mandarin’s throne room. The lust-maddened orangutan is set free, but Nita (along with Delia, Steve Jardin’s girlfriend, who also was locked in the Mandarin’s harem) manages to hide from it, all while Wentworth gets in bloody swordfights and shootouts. Then the “beast” gets sight of Ya Che, who is in the process of desperately trying to open a hidden door. 

Wentworth passes out yet again, and when he comes to, Kirkpatrick is there, freed from his mind control, and the Red Mandarin’s dead, Wentworth having shot him as he attempted to flee. Wentworth blithely announces that he’s already figured out the Red Mandarin was really Wu Chang; a nonplussed Kirkpatrick pulls off the red veil to discover our hero is right. But what of Ya Che? No one has seen her since she attempted to escape. But then…

A horrible cry rang through the corridors, but it was dim in the distance. It was the scream of a woman terribly injured — terribly afraid. It rose high and clear through the night — three, four times. Even in its agony, it was plainly recognizable as Ya Che's voice.

"The roof!" Kirkpatrick barked. "The roof, quickly!"

He plunged from the room and long minutes afterward there continued a fusillade that echoed through the night. Kirkpatrick came back into the room heavily; every eye centered on him as he stopped just inside the doorway. He shuddered uncontrollably.

"We were too late," he said. "Ya Che was dead. The orangutan had mated."

And with that The Red Death Rain comes to a close. While it wasn’t perfect, it was still by far the best volume of The Spider I’ve yet read, and has only whetted my appetite to continue reading these outrageous, violent, lurid tales. The overwhelming length of this review should be an indication of just how much I’m enjoying them.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Killinger #2: The Rainbow/Seagreen Case

Killinger #2: The Rainbow/Seagreen Case, by P.K. Palmer
January, 1974  Pinnacle Books

The second and final installment of the Killinger series is an exercise in tedium, author P.K. Palmer doling out a slow-moving tale that’s rife with repetition. It seems clear though that Palmer, who passed away before publication, intended Killinger to be a sort of Travis McGhee for the Pinnacle line; Pinnacle editor Andy Ettinger is even namedropped in the narrative.  But Palmer forgot to make his tale compelling.

More damningly, The Rainbow/Seagreen Case is almost a direct lift of the previous volume. Once again we are presented with a slow-burn tale which occurs over a few days, with our hero Jedediah Killinger the Third, marine adjustor extraordinnaire, not doing much of anything as he slowly goes about his latest case. And just like last time there are a few busty and bodacious babes around to distract him while he tries to deal with wealthy opponents who scheme behind the scenes. Also like last time, there’s a paucity of thrills and sex, though again the ample ladies are amply described.

But the biggest drag which returns from the previous volume is P.K. Palmer’s frustrating, measured style, in which he constantly stalls forward momentum with his penchant for overwriting. Sequences are repeated over and over again from multiple perspectives, and not in some interesting Rashomon way; no, we’ll just read as Killinger does something, and then read four or more sections in which various foreign agents watch as Killinger does what we just read about him doing. Seriously, the actual content of this 244-page book would only take up about 90 pages. The rest is tedious over-description about menial details…details we’ve already read about several times.

Anyway, picking up “about a year” after the events of The Turquoise/Yellow Case, this volume has 41-year-old Killinger (who we’re informed was a Lt. Col. in the Marines) investigating the crash of a privately-owned B-25 in the Pacific ocean, outside of Santa Barbara. The plane was insured for eleven million dollars, and Killinger, who lives on his fashionable Chinese junk in nearby Oxnard, is hired at great page-length by Marcel Renard, the same Paris-based insurance executive who hired Killinger last time.

Filthy rich “little old lady” L.G. Browne owned the crashed plane and is calling in the insurance policy; Killinger’s job is to ensure against fraud. Browne has dispatched her fussy, dowdy, virginal assistant, Audrey White, to Killinger’s junk; Audrey, who turns out to be Browne’s granddaughter, dresses in old-fashioned clothing from the turn of the century and treats everyone with disdain. She also has different-colored eyes, just like her grandmother, one “soft violet” and the other “icy blue.” This dual-eye color schtick is itself a rerun from The Turquoise/Yellow Case. As I said, this entire book is just a retread of what came before.

Audrey immediately runs afoul of Marjorie, Killinger’s mini-skirt wearing secretary who first came to work for him in the previous volume. Audrey clearly doesn’t like the young lady because she’s black, which elicits a blowout between the two. After making Audrey apologize, Killinger does a repeat of the unfunny “say ‘prunes’” deal from the previous book, ie when Marjorie’s lips pucker when saying “prunes” he sweeps in to kiss her. But after this Marjorie, as well as Killinger’s various other houseboat guests, are removed from the narrative, all of them taking off for a week of surfing in Santa Barbara.

But Killinger instantly suspects something is afoot here. Something appears to have been on the crashed plane, something Browne wanted destroyed. We know it is a “sea green” piece of pipe, because super-hot and super-stacked Marja-Liisa Kikkonen, a “six-foot Viking queen from Finland,” also referred to quite often as a “tigress” and an “Amazon,” happens to find this piece of pipe while scuba diving in the Pacific. With her “wonderously full breasts” and “tawny-gold hair to her waist,” Marja is hot stuff indeed, and is an assistant professor at the University of Santa Barbara.

Marja, despite the “Finland” mention, actually turns out to be from Wisconsin. But she’s still pretty damn exotic, even keeping a pet Cheetah in her posh home. But this strange piece of metal causes trouble for her; she takes it to the chem lab of the university, asking a friend there to run tests on it, to see what it is – the only thing about it is that “AJB” is stamped on it, along with a string of numbers. Instead this sets off an endless “comedic” bit where various foreign agents, both Chinese and Russian, along with CIA, arrive on the scene to find out where this metal was found.

Because, as it labriously turns out, “AJB” is a private military contractor, and this tail piece is part of some experimental MacGuffin L.G. Browne, a board director of the company, funded. However it was apparently a bust, and Browne schemed to destroy it entirely. But the Red Chinese, headed up by Peter Tsai (who poses as a left-leaning professor at Marja’s college), as well as the KGB, headed up by Peter Wegendorff, are looking for the rest of the gizmo. There’s also Marc and Juno, a pair of CIA agents; Juno, as you’d guess, is a smokin’ hot, auburn-tressed beauty with a body nearly the equal of Marja’s.

The reader will of course understand that “ruggedly virile” Killinger is going to bang both these broads, and sure enough he does, even if it takes practically the entire novel. And, again, author P.K. Palmer is a total prude when it comes to the sex, fading instantly to black, even though he has no qualms with going on and on about “wonderously full breasts” and whatnot. But anyway, Killinger himself eventually gets wind of this whole AJB business; that is, once he’s had a number of confrontations with L.G. Browne.

The cantankerous billionaire, who lives in seclusion, reveals that she had an affair with Killinger’s grandfather, calling him a pirate. She also says that she should’ve been his wife, but Killinger the First instead married “a no-good squaw.” She further reveals that the “squaw’s” mother was “part Negro,” having been sired by a “runaway slave.” Killinger is not only aware of this, but proud: “The blood of a brave black man is in my veins,” he says. Palmer tries to build up more “comedy” with this constant banter between Killinger and Browne, but like everything else in the novel it soon grates on the reader’s nerves.

The novel is given over to endless parts where Peter Tsai’s men and Wegendorff’s men monitor Marja or Killinger from afar, reporting back to their superiors – over and over again we read as these spies report back on the exact same info. Throughout The Rainbow/Seagreen Case, you will read the same material again and again. But anyway these spies want to know where Marja found that AJB pipe. Soon Killinger himself shows up at Marja’s doorstep, lead there due to her recent call to AJB HQ.

Here we get one of the few action scenes, as Killinger busts out his “karate quick” moves to take out a pair of studly guys who are actually undercover agents for the Chinese and the Russians. He and Marja have instant chemistry, Killinger escorting her back to his junk in his cherry red ’57 Chevy and making her a big meal, with the understanding that they’re about to have some hot sex. Once again we get tons of detail about Killinger’s teak-made Chinese junk, especially the constantly-mentioned lattice work with all of the sexual depictions on it.

But as mentioned when the two finally get down to it, Palmer cuts straight to the next day. He’s all tease, more content to dole out inconsequential bits of fluff and padding to fill the unwieldy word count. Look, the book is so deadening that I’ll just cut to the chase – Marja found the AJB piece because it was in a channel of fresh water in the sea. There are seven underground lakes that flow into the sea, and Marja is unsure which is the one that spat out the AJB piece. But one of the seven will have the wrest of the wreckage hidden within it.

So, at great friggin’ length, Killinger devises a method of uncovering which lake it is – he will drop all seven colors of the spectrum, ie the “rainbow” of the title, into each lake. So, yellow for one lake, blue for another, etc. It takes at least 30 pages to explain this, not to mention all of the many, many pages devoted to the various CIA, KGB, and Red Chinese spies who watch Killinger from afar and report back to their superiors. People, it’s so mind-boggingly overwritten as to be nauseating. It’s just so boring.

Palmer introduces yet another character to Killinger’s list of companions: Doc Kinneally, a black helicopter pilot who is also apparently a chemist or something. He comes up with the rainbow dyes for Killinger, and there follows a few scenes where he flies Killinger and Marja over the lake as they drop the dye, getting shot at from hidden enemy agents. Palmer has no understanding of suspense or tension, as Killinger et al continuosly fly back to the same lake, despite the hidden snipers afoot. Oh, but we learn that Marja becomes “sexually excited” by it all.

Speaking of Marja, Palmer ushers her out of the text in the final quarter, with some hastily-explained reason that she has to give a conference in Connecticut(?). Killinger escorts her to the airport and returns to his junk…only to find yet another busty bombshell waiting for him. This is auburn-haired Juno, CIA agent who doesn’t even waste time with preliminaries; she screws Killinger straight away, though again it’s another “cut to the next chapter” copout from Palmer. So now, through Juno, the CIA is basically monitoring Killinger as he waits the three days until the dye will filter through to the underwater channel, and he’ll be able to know which lake hides AJB.

The finale features some tepid action, with Killinger again blithely swimming around the same area in which he’s been shot at several times, “surprise” attacked by scuba-outfitted Red Chinese and Russians. Killinger actually kills one of them, gutting the dude with his knife; Killinger’s first and only kill in the series. Meanwhile Juno, a cipher stand-in for Marja, waits anxiously on a boat (rented from “Andy Ettinger’s Boat Sales”) for Killinger to return to the surface. And Doc gets shot but he’ll be okay.

So, L.G. Browne’s fraud uncovered – something about the AJB being a device she funded which turned out to be a bust, so she planned to crash it into the sea and then collect on the insurance to pay back her loss – the old woman’s hauled off to prison. Juno returns to wherever it is that hot CIA agents go, and Killinger ends the novel (which occurs over a single weekend) with yet another female conquest – none other than Audrey White, who apropos of nothing has flowered (likely just due to Killinger’s rugged virility) from a virginal shut-in to a hot-stuff mama who announces to Killinger that she’s about to have sex with him. The end.

Overall, a terrible, terrible book, filled with constant stalling and repetition. But whereas the first volume at least had a goofy, ‘70s charm going for it, this one squanders all promise through its deadening style. In other words, good riddance Jedediah Killinger the Third.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Spider #75: Satan's Murder Machines

The Spider #75: Satan's Murder Machines, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1939  Popular Publications

The Spider returns in an installment published a few years after the previous volume I read, Death Reign Of The Vampire King, though not much has changed – he’s still thrust into a relentless sequence of chases, firefights, and life-threatening traps, all while separated from his usual supporting cast of characters, author Norvell Page (ie “Grant Stockbridge”) showing his protagonist little mercy.

The first novel collected in Baen’s 2008 mass market paperback Robot Titans Of Gotham, Satan’s Murder Machines sees hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth going up against another villain with a name that would one day become associated with another character: The Iron Man. Unlike the later Marvel superhero, this one’s a murderous psychopath who commands a legion of almost-indestructable robots that are tearing apart Manhattan as the novel begins.

The Spider’s already on the scene, this time wearing a mask and veil, so I guess sort of like the original magazine cover depictions of the character mixed with the Shadow’s look? Wentworth has more problems than just the robots, which have torn down a few buildings and killed several people – he’s being framed by whoever’s behind them, framed as both a thief and a murderer. This leads to the novel’s central confrontation: Wentworth versus Commissioner Kirkpatrick, aka Wentworths’ best and only “friend.”

It’s pretty obvious that Kirkpatrick knows Wentworth is the Spider – I’m currently reading an earlier (and crazier) volume of the series, The Red Death Rain, and Page basically states as much in the narrative – but throughout the entire ten-year run of the series it was a constant question if the commissioner would ever get proof of it. As he constantly reminds everyone, as soon as he gets verifiable evidence of who the Spider is, that man will be arrested promptly.

Yet despite all this, Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are pals. Not that you’d know it this volume. While the robots are tearing up the city, Wentworth is busy being shuttled around by Kirkpatrick and his cops, the commissioner almost outright accusing Wentworth of being a murderer. Long story short, someone’s planted stolen artwork in Wentworth’s sprawling penthouse, and also one of his pistols has been stolen, used by this same perpetrator to murder someone.

The opening half features a handful of entertaining scenes in which Wentworth either uses guile or trickery to get around Kirkpatrick and his men, like when he recovers his pistol from the crime scene before the cops can spot it. More entertaining though is the increasingly-hostile banter between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick; no two men could remain “friends” after the amount of vitriol they pour upon one another. Standard with the “series reset” which occurs after every installment, though, I’m sure they’ll be back to being pals by the next volume.

Meanwhile the robots! Early in the novel, while in his Spider guise, Wentworth encounters them. While we never get a good idea how tall the things are, they are sufficiently bulky and massive enough to cause terror in their wake. They also have glowing eyes, and teeth which are memorably compared to shovels. They stampede over everything in their wake, nearly killing Wentworth and his assistant, Ronald Jackson, who served as a sergeant to Wentworth’s major in World War I.

Wentworth soon suspects that these “robots” really house men inside, especially when one of them begins to speak, the booming voice projecting from a grill on the chest. Eventually Wentworth learns he’s correct; these robots are more so powered suits of armor, with men inside them, yet even after this is revealed they’re still referred to as “robots.” Anyway per series standards how exactly these robot suits were created is never explained; Page is more focused on action and thrills.

And he succeeds -- Satan’s Murder Machines is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it even more than Death Reign Of The Vampire King. One of the main reasons for this is that the supporting characters get more of a chance to shine, this time. In particular Nita Van Sloan, Wentworth’s fiance – there are a few scenes where she not only saves Wentworth, but poses as the Spider herself, usually so as to distract the cops. This includes a great moment where Kirkpatrick and his cops are escorting Wentworth out of a building, and are shocked by the sudden appearance of the Spider, who shoots over their heads and thus gives Wentworth opportunity toe scape.

The Wentworth/Nita moments provide a better understanding of why these two stay together, perennially “about to be married” but never taking the plunge due to Wentworth’s commitment to fight crime. But Page makes it clear that Nita is the same as her man, just as (psychotically?) devoted to taking on criminals, even if it means “true happiness” must be curtailed. Like her fiance, Nita even enjoys donning disguises; in this installment she takes on an apparently-frequent guise of a streetwalker, which leads to some humorous banter between her and Wentworth in a bar.

But really Satan’s Murder Machines is Wentworth’s show; while Nita, Jackson, and “Hindustani” colleague Ram Singh make scattered appearances in the opening half, Wentworth is relegated to working alone, mostly due to his wanted status by the police. Also, Jackson gets arrested for moving a body, so as to help foil the scheme to frame Wentworth, and Nita gets captured after drugging Wentworth and, once again, going out to do the Spider’s work on her own.

This is just another highlight in a novel filled with them; Wentworth midway through gets in an underwater battle with a few robots in the East River, trying to track them to their hideout. He manages to destroy one, but due to the freezing cold (the novel occurs in December, the same month it was published) he’s come down with the flu. Refusing to allow her man to go back underwater to find the robot shell, Nita instead slips our boy a mickey and then goes out to do it herself!

But as mentioned, she gets caught, and now Wentworth works alone again, trying to free her from the minions of the Iron Man. Speaking of which, the villain gets little narrative time, and in fact isn’t even described. There’s a part where Wentworth is fighting a few robots, one of whom is stated as being the Iron Man, but how Wentworth knows this is not mentioned. Is his suit of armor larger, or differently colored? Page doesn’t inform us, but then he was banging out about a million words a month, so we can forgive him if he sometimes misses little details.

Speaking of costumes, Wentworth wears a variety of them this time, from the “mask and veil” getup to the more-standard Spider disguise of the hunched back, lank hair, and fangs. I do love his thoroughness, though; when in a late sequence where he takes out one of the robots and appropriates the armor, Wentworth stamps his spider seal on the forehead, so everyone will know that this particular robot is none other than the Spider!

One thing missing this volume is the OTT violence of the series; since his opponents are armored robots, Wentworth is unable to blow their faces off as per usual. He does still find ways to kill them, either by ramming cement trucks into the robots or electrocuting them. Innocents still suffer, though, with men, women, and children being torn apart by the marauding robots, in particular a part where they destroy a tenement building. Here Page goes to the trouble of describing a woman and her child meeting a horrible fate at the metal hands and feet of the robots.

The novel is filled with scenes of Wentworth narrowly evading the robots, destroying one or two of them if he can, and keeping others from danger, in particular Kirkpatrick and his cops. There’s a great part where Wentworth, again as the Spider, poses briefly as a cop, commandeering the bullhorn in Kirkpatrick’s car to call off the cops, who otherwise would be destroyed by the robots. This climaxes with Kirkpatrick and the Spider meeting face-to-face; I got a chuckle how Kirkpatrick immediately went for his gun and snapped off a shot. Cops in the ‘30s didn’t mess around.

Wentworth pulls off many superhuman feats, from wrestling robots beneath the Hudson to shooting through the finger-muzzle of one of them, blowing up its entire arm. He does all of this while still clearing his name (thus leading to a truce with Kirkpatrick) and figuring out who the Iron Man is. Unlike what I assume is the standard norm, this particular secret identity seems to be at least a little planned out, with Page introducing the person midway through the tale and spending an entire sequence with him. It’s my understanding that most of these “surprise reveals” turn out to just be random characters briefly mentioned.

This was another fast-paced Spider yarn which barely allowed the reader to catch his breath, plunging Richard Wentworth into one confrontation after another. What’s most surprising then is how Norvell Page is still able to shoehorn in some fun dialog and memorable character exchanges amid all of the chaos; there are even minor references to earlier adventures, which no doubt would be pleasing to long-time readers.

The other Page novel collected in Robot Titans Of Gotham by the way is the first and only volume of an obscure 1939 pulp “series” titled The Octopus (which coincidentally or not happened to be the name of the villain in the 1938 Spider serial The Spiders Web). It’s my understanding this novel was only co-written by Page. At any rate I haven’t read it yet, and will instead move on to more Spider volumes.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Midnight Lightning (Steel Lightning #1)

Midnight Lightning, by Kevin Sherrill
August, 1989  Pinnacle/Zebra Books

About as obscure as a paperback original can be, Midnight Lightning is one of those late ‘80s publications that bears the Pinnacle imprint but in reality is a Zebra publication. It’s also the first of a three-volume men’s adventure series,* even though there was no series title or volume numbers. (The spine however labels the book as “Men’s Adventure.”)

Kevin Sherrill appears to have been a real person, as the book is copyright him. Style-wise he proves himself capable of doling out the OTT thrills the genre demands, though ultimately the book is stymied by its exorbitant page count – 351 pages, the typically-overblown Zebra paperback length. And the guy POV-hops like crazy, sometimes even changing the character perspective in the middle of a sentence He commits almost as great a sin by referring to his characters by various names in the narrative, which can really confuse a reader.

The novel comes off like an ‘80s take on Death Wish, a total Canon Group type of movie idea, where a gang of New Yorkers, their lives ruined by acts of crime, band together beneath the guidance of a tough veteran cop and become a well-armed, well-trained urban vigilante squad. Be warned though that the vast majority of Midnight Lightning is all about the training; the actual vigilante stuff doesn’t even get started until around page 300. Glances through future volumes indicate that they more quickly get to the good stuff.

When Sherrill gets going, he proves himself in the caliber of David Alexander, and there were times I wondered if “Kevin Sherrill” was the pseudonym of our old Phoenix-authoring pal. This similarity is mostly displayed in the opening pages, which purport to illustrate the cruelties that our heroes suffer, the injustices which make them become vigilantes. But it’s all done so over the top that it comes off as farce.

First we have Barbara Cohen, an attractive young lady with one bizarre backstory, a backstory which Sherrill appears to change as he goes along. I also couldn’t figure out if she was a brunette or a blonde, as I think she’s described both ways. Anyhow, poor Barbara is on the way from work late one evening, where she apparently serves as the assistant to the DA or something. (And yet, we’re also informed she was once a hooker…as well as a drug-addicted porn star??) A pair of men ambush her outside of her Lower East Side apartment, take her away, and proceed to rape and abuse her for pages, even slicing her up in unspecified ways. Indeed, Barbara’s injuries are never fully described, which makes it all the more unsettling, as it plays on your mind.

Next there’s Joseph Vernick, a WWII vet who ownes a small grocery store in the Lower East Side. One night a gang of hispanic youth come in and terrorize the place. When burly and beefy Vernick fights them off, one of them whips out a pistol – and shoots Vernick’s wife. Now the elderly lady has been rendered to a vegetable, life support the only thing that keeps her alive.

Moses White is a former pro footballer, where he acquired the nickname “Dr. Pain.” But that was years ago, and now Moses is happy living with his white girlfriend. The fact that Moses is black is very upsetting to a group of neo-Nazis, all of whom begin terrorizing him. This has its beginnings one afternoon when Moses is ambushed by a group of them, including some Nazi girls. Moses fights them off, but is shot several times by the leader of the gang. As with the others, the cops/legal system prove incapable of bringing them to justice.

Next there’s Miguel Negron, a streetwise hispanic who grew up in the Lower East Side and has avoided the gangs and the drugs. His joy in life is playing the saxophone, which he does on the street corner for small change. He’s mugged one night and when the men try to take his precious sax, he goes nuts. When they threaten to slice off his lips, he goes even more nuts. But the thugs end up mutilating his lips anyway, slicing them in half and thus ruining Miguel’s chances of ever playing sax again.

Finally there’s Brian Benson, whose sad backstory is the most horrific of all, which is to say it’s also the most farcial. A closeted gay and incredibly shy and introverted, Brian lives alone and works as a data programmer. One night he comes home to find three burly bikers waiting in his apartment. The men proceed to rape him horribly, culminating in their lighting Brian on fire. But despite the flames which engulf him, Brian lives on, even staring the bikers down as they flee the burning apartment.

Meanwhile we are introduced to John DiNatale, a 40-something veteran NYC cop and ‘Nam vet. Sherrill seems to have clearly had Bruce Willis in mind here, as DiNatale’s balding pate is often mentioned – just like Bruce Willis’s hairline circa 1989. Despite his awesome record, DiNatale was kicked off the force for outright murdering a serial killer/pedophile, shooting the man point-blank during a police interrogation. This in addition to his other flagrances of the law (also depicted via overlong flashbacks) finally resulted in DiNatale’s dismissal.

But in a retread of the earlier Hawker series, DiNatale is contacted by a wealthy businessman who offers to fund a private war on crime. Just as in that earlier series, DiNatale will be set up with state-of-the-art technology and weapons, and will get to be field commander of an army he creates. Now he just has to find his soldiers. Walking through the Lower East Side one night, DiNatale comes upon a public gathering where the locals are listening to a speech by the police commissioner, who promises to curtail the rampant crime, something which brings forth a lot of laughter.

DiNatale encounters our unfortunate victims, every single one of whom has gathered here tonight, “as if by fate.” Now, Sherrill never says exactly how long ago each of them suffered their horrors, but they’re all healed up enough to be out and about. Even Barbara Cohen, who was apparently beaten and cut to the state of being unrecognizable, is back to looking like her usual hotstuff self. And Brian Benson is there, a scarred, skeletal shambles of a man whom Sherrill will exploit throughout the narrative, comparing him to a monster.

Anyway, DiNatale knows he’s found his soldiers as soon as he sees them. They meet at a bar, where he offers them the chance to strike back at crime. Brian even shows up, and we readers see that he has become a completely different character, consumed with vengeance. He’s almost been burnt to a crisp, and wears dark glasses. He also enjoys exploiting his own “freakish appearance” by scaring people who openly stare at him. He speaks in a ragged whisper, and seems more like a figure from a horror movie than a real person.

Now begins the Dirty Dozen-esque training, which serves to take up the majority of the narrative. Sherrill hopscotches around his large cast of characters, making for a bumpy ride, because the dude POV-hops like a mother. One paragraph we’re in say DiNatale’s thoughts, and the next paragraph (or even sentence) we’re suddenly in say Barbara’s thoughts – no white space or anything to clue to the reader that the perspective has changed.

Worse yet, Sherill lacks consistency with character names: DiNatale is referred to as “DiNatale,” “John,” and even “J.D.;” Moses is “Mose,” “Moses,” and “White,” and most confusing of all Miquel is referred to as “Miquel,” “Negron,” and even “Micky!” And all this in the narrative, mind you; it’s fine for the characters to refer to each other by various names, I mean that’s just like in real life. But when the narrative itself jumps around – sometimes without even warning you, like with the “J.D.” and “Micky” stuff – you can get easily confused.

Anyway the training stuff goes on and on, from DiNatale teaching them how to defend themselves with martial arts to even laughable stuff where he teaches them how to use ninja throwing stars – part of every New York cop’s bag of tricks, I guess. Finally the gun-porn arrives and goes on for quite some time, with each of the characters picking up their own favored piece. Most memorable is Brian, who takes to a .44 Magnum with relish, furthering his image as a sort of shadowy personification of Death itself.

True to Zebra form the book is vastly overblown, meaning there’s all kinds of shit Sherrill likely added to meet his word count. In addition to the rampant and unecessary flashbacks that pepper the first half of the book, there’s also lame and bizarre stuff past the midway point like where DiNatale takes his “troops” out into the no man’s land of Brooklyn and has them get in a chase with some cops. Even more time-wasting is a part where he takes them out to the Catskills, to run across a field while they’re shot at by cannons fired by a psychotic old ‘Nam pal of DiNatale’s who’s become a mercenary.

It’s not until page 300 that we get to the actual revenge – and even then it’s only minimally dealt out, Brian being the only one who gets to take vengeance on his tormentors. Meanwhile the scum who destroyed the lives of the others go free; in particular Sherrill leaves a whole subplot unexplored, where neo-Nazis are terrorizing Moses and his wife. Perhaps this stuff will be dealt with in the next novel, but still you sort of wish Sherrill had skipped all of the time-wasting stuff and just gotten down to the gory revenge scenario promised by the front and back covers.

I forgot to mention the gadgets and gear DiNatale supplies his team with. First there’s the “war truck,” or watever you want to call it; a ‘40s Dodge panel truck that’s been armored and remodeled into a tank on wheels. There’s even a gadget in the dashboard that foils police scanners into misreading the truck’s actual speed. The team is outfitted with state-of-the art weaponry and endless ammo, and they operate out of the Meat Locker, a Lower East Side tenement that spans three floors and has been converted into basically an army base; DiNatale lives there with his girlfriend. Finally the team has been outfitted with “Kevlar suits,” which while not fully bulletproof should prevent major harm.

Brian’s tormentors are chosen as the first to taste the wrath of DiNatale’s unnamed group of vigilantes. These are a group of degenerate bikers who run out of a condemned building where they sometimes bring back kidnapped children to drug and rape! And of course the courts and police can do nothing to stop them due to the usual action-novel nonsense. Currently they’re in the process of debasing and degrading a preteen runaway whom they plan to kill off once they’re sick of her. One thing’s for sure, Sherrill really makes the reader want to see these motherfuckers pay.

In the final pages we get a violent action scene as Brian first taunts out the bikers who tortured and raped him – and opens up on them with a flamethrower! After which the rest of the troops bust into the burning building and raise hell on full auto. In these sequences Sherrill finally cuts loose, and it’s unfortunate he doesn’t more often in the novel. As it is, only the opening and closing portions of Midnight Lightning reach the lurid excess this genre demands. But when Sherill’s on, he’s on, almost up there with David Alexander – he even has that author’s penchant for veering into straight-up homoerotica when writing about guns:

[Brian] now wore his “Dirty Harry Special” all the time. And the fully-charged stunner was never far from his hand. He could haul his big rod out and shoot a load or two or more at the least provocation. His rod felt hot in its holster because the men to whom he had promised an Instant Replay weren’t far away at all.

He’s talking about his .44 Magnum, of course!

Speaking of erotica, Sherrill even delivers a fairly-explicit sex scene, as DiNatale graphically bangs his live-in girlfriend, an incredibly young druggie/hooker or something. This girl doesn’t deliver much to the proceedings, other than to call up DiNatale on the Meat Locker’s intercom and ask him to come over to her room for a quick fuck. We also get some stuff about Barbara Cohen now being a lesbian, unable to think of men “that way” anymore after her horrific rape…so Sherrill compensates by throwing in an out-of-nowhere flashback/dream sequence to her days as a porn star.

As mentioned, only Brian gets his vengeance in this first novel, and its bloody (and fiery) vengeance indeed. But by the time DiNatale’s troops roar out in their armored trucks, just as the cops show, the novel’s already come to an end – and the other criminals are still out there. Here’s hoping the next novel delivers, and also that it isn’t hampered like this one was by pointless digressions and padding.

*Midnight Lightning was followed in 1991 by Steel Lightning. The series concluded in 1992 with the similarly-titled Steel Lightning: Slash and Burn. To make it even more confusing, these two novels had identical covers, only with “Slash And Burn” on the cover of the third volume differentiating the two. (Also, this third volume was published under the Zebra imprint, whereas the first two bore the Pinnacle imprint.)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Spider #26: Death Reign Of The Vampire King

The Spider #26: Death Reign Of The Vampire King, by Grant Stockbridge
November, 1936  Popular Publications

Again I have Zwolf to thank – or should that be blame? Because, thanks to his awesome Spider overview, I’ve gone off the deep end, and within the span of a few weeks have picked up like 60-some installments of this 1933-1943 pulp series.

I was only slightly aware of the Spider, one of the longer-running pulp heroes, mostly just due to mentions I’d seen of him over the years, but mainly due to the DVD copy I acquired a few years ago of The Spider’s Web, a 1938 serial based on the character – and suprisingly faithful to its source. When I was a kid I was obsessed with these ‘30s pulp heroes, these masked crimefighters who appeared to be just as bloodthirsty as the criminals they opposed, but back then I couldn’t find any reprints of the various pulps.

However one of the few good things about our miserable modern era is that stuff like this has become much easier to acquire. In fact, Will Murray and Radio Archives have released scads of pulp novels in eBook format, including the Spider run. I’m not sure if they have yet released all 118 volumes, but they’ve got to be damn close. So then, for around $2.99 you can actually read these old novels, which for decades were nigh impossible to find.

While in this case I’m in favor of eBooks, I have to admit that I didn’t read my first Spider novel that way; instead, I read Death Reign Of The Vampire King in the 2008 Baen mass market paperback Robot Titans Of Gotham, which compiled two Spider novels and another pulp novel that was co-written by Norvell Page, who wrote pretty much the entirety of the Spider series.

Norvell Page sounds like one interesting dude. As Zwolf mentions in his overview, Page would sometimes dress like his character when turning in his Spider manuscripts, likely just having fun with it. But damn the guy was a writing powerhouse, turning out a novel a month! And he did this for almost ten years, and that’s not even including the novels he wrote for other pulp magazines. But anyway Page was the “Grant Stockbridge” (ie the house name the series was published under after initial series author RTM Scott left), even though he didn’t come onto the scene until the third volume.

Zwolf’s also on point with his theory that Joseph Rosenberger was probably an admirer of The Spider. My friends, as I read Death Reign Of The Vampire King, there were times I had to remind myself I wasn’t reading a Rosenberger novel. The styles are pretty similar, with a sort of skewed, off-the-wall vibe mixed with endless action and a breathless tone, with exclamation points all over the place. However, Page is a much more refined (and, uh, better) author than Mr. Rosenberger, and while I’d consider reading a hundred or so Rosenberger novels a pointless endeavor, I’m so impressed with Page and his characters and storylines that I hope to someday read all of his Spider work.

But for those of you who are more into ‘70s or ‘80s men's adventure novels novels and don’t think ‘30s or ‘40s pulps would be your thing, you will be in for quite a surprise. If Death Reign Of The Vampire King is any indication, this series is very similar to the men’s adventure novels of the 1970s. In tone, content, and even page length, the series is almost the prototype of what came a few decades later. It even has the lurid vibe of those ‘70s novels, though obviously not as exploitative as some of them – though to be sure, there’s some definite exploitation afoot here.

This 26th volume is proof enough. The villain is a deformed monster with fangs and wings who commands an untold number of vampire bats, there’s a femme fatale who gets off on torture and wants to watch as our hero is killed by bats, there’s a scene in which said femme fatale apparently has sex with the hero’s accomplice – the accomplice taking advantage of that aforementioned turned-on nature – and finally there’s thousands of people around the country getting killed by the vampire bats. This isn’t even mentioning our hero, who goes around in the disguise of a hunchback with a big nose and vampire fangs of his own.

Like Rosenberger, Page throws us right into the action and doesn’t stop until the final page, with only a few moments here and there for introspection and reflection. But again, whereas Rosenberger’s endless action onlsaught can quickly become nauseating, Page’s style is so much more assured and measured that you can’t help but keep reading – seriously, the dude was a master of the craft, and should be enshrined as pulp royalty. As the novel opens those damn vampire bats have already killed a bunch of people, though must of the victims have been gamblers and horse-betters and other such people; ie, no “innocents.” At least not yet.

Enter hero Richard Wentworth, wealthy gadabout known to all and sundry as a famous criminologist. He’s also the Spider, hunchbacked and fanged enemy of the underworld (despite the cover depictions, the Spider didn’t actually wear a domino mask…though sometimes he did). That Wentworth is the Spider is quite obviously known by New York Police Commisioner Kirkpatrick (who doesn’t appear this volume), though this “does he know or not” element is apparently played out throughout the series, with these two ostensible friends constantly at war, with Kirkpatrick bound and determined to someday arrest the Spider….no matter who he may turn out to be.

But make no mistake, Wentworth is nuts. Will Murray perfectly sums up the character in his series overview which appears in all of the Radio Archives Spider eBooks, so be sure to check one of those out – and Murray’s overview is also important because it actually gets the reader excited to read one of these books. (Unlike the pretentious and annoying one in Robot Titans Of Gotham, which only succeeds in grating the reader’s nerves.) Anyway, Wentworth is very similar, again, to the Death Merchant, in that he’s basically an inhuman warrior. Though, unlike Rosenberger, Page actually succeeds in making his hero both human and likable.

Anyway, Wentworth is already on the trail of these vampire bats when we meet him, on the scene in Philadephia, away from his home turf of New York. An interesting thing to mention is that, other than a few pages at the begninning, Wentworth is not in the guise of the Spider throughout the entire novel, so really it’s more so the adventures of “Richard Wentworth, Criminologist.” But he’s in the cape, slouch hat, deformed nose, “lank-haired wig,” and of couse the fangs of the Spider ensemble as the novel opens, sneaking onto the property of a criminal he suspects might be next on the vamire bat death list.

While Wentworth is brilliant and all, he apparently has poor judgment at times, as he sneaks onto the property carrying a bird cage with bats in it!! And yet he’s surprised when later a witness accuses him of being the person behind all these bat attacks. Wentworth’s aren’t vampire bats, just decoys, and when the real vampire bats actually do attack, we’re thrust into the first of the novel’s many action scenes. Here we see how bloodthirsty our hero is, as he guns down various crooks with his twin “automatics,” which are never specified but if the series covers are any indication are good ol’ Colt .45s.

Here we get to see the Vampire King himself – the “Bat Man!” Unlike the more famous character (who hadn’t been created yet, anyway), this Bat Man can actually fly, flapping about on his massive bat wings. Page builds up a supernatural element with Wentworth spending most of the novel wondering if the Bat Man is even human. But the villain escapes, his victims dead, and off Wentworth goes in pursuit; he spends most of the novel like ten steps behind his quarry, while soon people all over the country begin dying…and not just gamblers and underworld riffraff, either.

Wentworth as mentioned is soon called out by a witness, who claims she saw him setting those vampire bats free; this is June Calvert, a hotstuff gal who is the above-referenced femme fatale. She claims to be the sister of a man who was killed by the Bat Man – and she thinks the Spider and the Bat Man are one and the same. Wentworth brings her along, pretending to commandeer his own Daimler – even to the extent of pretending to kidnap his faithful servant/chauffer, Ram Singh, a hulking “Hindustani” who appears to be a little too eager to go out and shed blood with his curved dagger.

Speaking of accomplices, Wentworth’s fiance Nita Van Sloan is flying in from New York to assist. Nita is fully aware of Wentworth’s double life and also takes part in it, sometimes even taking up the Spider mantle herself. However nothing like this happens in Death Reign Of The Vampire King; Nita’s unfortunately-brief storyline has her becoming reacquainted with Fred Stoking, an old flame who just happens to run into Nita and Wentworth in Philadelphia. Apparently Page’s intention is for readers to suspect that Stoking might be the Bat Man – the villain’s true identity is a big source of mystery for everyone – but if so, this element is quickly dropped.

Actually, none of Wentworth’s accomplices are around much. He’s pretty much a one-man band here; even June Calvert quickly disappears from the text, though when she appears again she’s morphed into becoming like the Bat Man’s sadistic and depraved female minion. In the best scene in the novel, Wentworth and another of his colleagues, Ronald Jackson, are captured by the “Jivaro Indians” who serve the Bat Man. They’re taken to the Bat Man’s underground lair in Jersey City(!), where he sits on a throne, surrounded by his bats and barely-clothed Indian warriors.

The Bat Man is straight out of a horror film, with huge wings, fangs, and the twisted, demonic face of a bat. Also, he squeaks when he talks, and can command his bats with his voice. Did I mention yet that his bats have poisoned fangs? Anyway, June is here as well, dressed in a form-revealing red dress with bands across her breasts, like she just walked out of one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. While there is of course no sex in these books, I have to say again how “modern” they seem, at least so far as the style goes, as June’s ample charms are constantly mentioned, in a matter not unlike that which would be common in the men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s.

The Bat Man orders Wentworth and Jackson stripped nude and tossed into a cell in which they’ll be drained to death by swarms of vampire bats. And June Calvert demands to be allowed to watch! It’s all very Myrna Loy in The Mask Of Fu Manchu, as June even pulls up a chair outside of the cell so she can avidly watch it all go down. And while fending off the innumerable bats, Wentworth can’t help but notice how excited June looks…and also how Jackson himself can’t seem to keep his eyes off the evil yet ultra-hot woman.

So Wentworth does what likely no other pulp hero would do – he tells Jackson to fuck June, right through the cell bars! Of course, he doesn’t use these exact words, and Page does leave it to our imagination, but it’s still pretty clear what goes down…despite the vaguery of the narrative, Jackson uses his macho charms to capitalize on June’s sexually-excited nature. While Wentworth keeps his back turned, still fending off the bats, June and Jackson soon begin panting and thrusting away behind him.

And it works – the evil woman is ensnared by her own sadistic impulses, and soon enough has fallen in love with Jackson. She helps them escape, which of course really pisses off the Bat Man, and he sends more bats and Jivaros after them. Wentworth kills scads of both, and while Nita sits out the majority of this installment, June Calvert basically stands in for her, serving as Wentworth’s asskicking female assistant. Eventually it’s just him and her working together, with Jackson too disappearing into the narrative aether along with Nita, Ram Singh, and Nita’s old boyfriend.

Once again my review is reaching absurd proportions, so I’ll stop synopsizing. Long story short, Death Reign Of The Vampire King is an endless, breathless sequence of Wentworth either stealing cars or planes and chasing after the minions of the Bat Man. I think there are like ten plane crashes in this novel, Wentworth’s commandeered planes getting shot out of the sky again and again (and yet he and everyone else on board always surviving, of course).

One of these crashes leads to an interminable sequence in which Wentworth and June must walk through the rough terrain of the Appalachian mountains. This part goes on and on and serves to drag the novel down; surely Page could’ve come up with something more exciting to fill the pages. In true pulp fashion he has no problem with shoehorning in coincidence; June, besides being an expert pilot herself, was also briefly a school teacher in the Appalachias(??), and thus uses her knowledge of the redneck world to steal a truck, making the journey faster.

Also in true pulpster fashion, Page clearly runs out of pages in the homestretch, and thus we are graced with a finale that’s a little unsatisfying. Having figured the Bat Man’s next big attack will be in Michigan City (where 3,5000 people are killed by bats!), Wentworth steals another plane, gets in another aerial dogfight, and then breaks out his own wings as he jumps from this latest crashing plane. Employing wings he’s had made to match the Bat Man’s, now Wentworth himself can fly around, and thus battles the Bat Man in the sky.

Any hopes of a big climax are dashed; the Bat Man merely plummets in the scuffle, and only later does a dazed Wentworth discover that he succeeded in shooting him to death. There’s also a Scooby-Doo reveal where it turns out the Bat Man isn’t some mutant monster, after all; instead he’s some random character who was briefly mentioned earlier in the novel. Apparently these “surprise reveals” were part and parcel of Page’s schtick; see this humourous Will Murray article at the essential Spider Returns site for more on that.

The thing that most impressed me about Death Reign Of The Vampire King, besides its hectic pace and bloodthirsty protagonist, was how modern it seemed. In fact there were even parts where Wentworth thought of various things, ie house architecture, as “old fashioned;” an interesting sentiment to encounter in an 80-year-old novel. Speaking of which, this installment was one of the four that Pocket Books “modernized” in the 1970s, editing the text so “the Spider” became just “Spider,” and other such bizarre changes which still draw fan spite.

While this particular installment of The Spider didn’t knock me out, it entertained me enough that I immediately began reading the other Spider novel compiled in Robot Titans Of Gotham, Satan’s Death Machines, which I’ll be reviewing next – and which I enjoyed even more.

Above I mentioned the eBooks, but for those like myself who still prefer print, you can find the 25 Spider “Pulp Doubles” published by Girasol, which compiled two novels per volume. Unfortunately, they were not published in any sort of order, however they did retain the interior illustrations, something lacking in both the eBooks and the two Baen mass market paperbacks. The eBooks are obviously much cheaper – and also there are many volumes of the series that were never reprinted by Girasol, Baen, or the others. (Actually, Girasol has published the majority of the series in “Pulp Replica” format: exact replicas of the original magazines…at a hefty forty bucks each!!)

Another thing to note is that the Spider novels are sometimes referred to as “novellas.” I don’t think this is accurate. The Spider novels compiled by Baen run to about 150-160 pages each, which again is basically the same page length as the men’s adventure novels of the 1970s. I picked up all of the “Pulp Doubles” as well as a handful of Spider reprints published by Bold Ventures and Pulp Adventures Press (both of which also retain the original interior illustrations), so there will be many more Spider reviews forthcoming – you can definitely count me a fan.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Executioners (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #55)

The Executioners, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Not as entertaining, crazy, or sick as his earlier installment, The Sea Trap, The Executioners is only a middling entry in the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, courtesy Jon Messmann. Also worth noting is that, unlike that earlier volume, this one is in first-person, which already results in a demerit so far as I’m concerned.

And given that first-person narration, The Executioners lacks the setup of the earlier volumes that were in third; it opens with Nick Carter already en route to Australia and on his latest case. The setup is clunkily rendered via Carter’s expository flashbacks to files he read in boss David Hawk’s office on Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. Long story short, the Australians have been fucking up recently, and three separate accidents during military training have resulted in lots of death, destruction, and loss of money.

The US military took part in these training exercises, and since America too has suffered loss AXE has been called in to investigate. Worth noting is that these three accidents are stated as taking place over the summer of 1969, with the latest one occurring in September. Thus, the novel takes place in September, 1969; it appears that these early volumes of the series were pretty constant in locking it all down in a specific place and time. The side effect though is that Nick “Killmaster” Carter comes off as one busy dude.

Carter hooks up with Australian intelligence, which is located near a small city named Townsville. The affable commander in charge tells Carter that his main intelligence contact will be – you guessed it – a super hot and super stacked redhead named Mona Star, who promptly makes her interest in Carter obvious. Surprisingly, Carter has not gotten laid yet, even though we’re already around 20 pages in. All joking aside, there’s actually less sex afoot here than typical, so far as the series goes, and the lurid factor of The Sea Trap is completely missing.

With Mona’s assistance, Carter researches the military training exercise mishaps. They span the three branches of the Australian military: the army, the air force, and the navy. In each case a disaffected soldier was at fault, and officially it’s been marked down as human error. However AXE suspects sabotage, and a grander, darker scheme at play; AXE has named this mysterious threat “The Executioners,” which ultimately has zilch to do with the plot and is likely the title Award Books came up with; book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel complained that the publisher often changed the titles of the books, usually without even informing him.

Dawsey, who crashed a tank, has been discharged from the army since, but Carter discovers that the guy appears to be rather affluent. Carter barges in and outright accuses him of being a traitor in exchange for cash, and then tails Dawsey to a bar called the Ruddy Jug. There he sees Dawsey talking to an attractive but downbeaten waitress. But then the waitress has Carter kicked out of the bar, after which he’s jumped by three guys at Dawsey’s house and taken away.

This is just the first of several instances in which “the Killmaster” is caught in The Executioners. This time he’s taken to a smelting plant, where he escapes in one of the most unbelievable sequences ever; I mean, the thugs actually leave Carter’s Luger in his pocket so it too will be smelted and destroyed! Uh, all Carter has to do is jump away…and then shoot them with his Luger. I’ve never seen such a brazen disregard for genre tropes.

Carter kills these guys, discovers Dawsey’s corpse back at his house, and heads back for the Ruddy Jug to confront the waitress who ratted him out. This is Judy, who might not be as bad as she seems; she’s merely paid to point out disaffected servicemen to a “concerned group” of Australian men who claim they’ll help these soldiers. Otherwise she professes no knowledge of the sabotage acts or Dawsey’s murder, etc. Plus she’s got these awesome breasts and Carter just wants to believe she’s innocent.

Speaking of tits, Carter’s oggling them throughout the novel, like a regular Nick Merlotti. In what has to be some intentional humor, the women’s breasts are always mentioned in every single scene, beyond even the genre norm. I’m not complaining, just noting. Anyway, Carter is next almost killed by Dempster, the air force pilot who was involved with another of the “accidents.” Once again coming off like a fool, Carter just hops in a plane with this guy…and Dempster jettisons him right over the outback!

We get a long sequence of survivalist fiction as Carter somehow makes it through the unforgiving elements; a sequence which sees him saved by a group of aborigines. But he recuperates enough to eventually get back to Mona Star’s place outside Townsville – I forgot to mention, but the two are now an item, Mona being the first (and only) woman Carter scores with in the novel, in a sex scene that isn’t nearly as explicit as anything in Messmann’s earlier The Sea Trap. I thought these kinds of books got more explicit and graphic as the ‘60s became the ‘70s, but this particular novel would prove that’s not always true.

There is though lots of sensationalistic stuff as Carter uses his male mystique to woo Lynn, Dawsey’s ex-girlfriend, a man-starved woman who too has “full breasts” which Carter enjoys oggling. While he never has “full-blown sex” with her, Carter gets pretty hot and heavy with the lady, using her obvious interest in him to figure out if she knows more about the plot than she admits; in a goofy bit of coincidence, Messmann has it that all three women are somehow involved with whoever is planning the sabotage, but only one of them is intentionally so.

“The Executioners” operate out of a ranch outside of Townsville, and there follows another sequence where Carter is again captured, and the dumbasses toss him into the lot with a bunch of maddened steer…leaving Carter with his stiletto! Of course, he’s able to escape, and frustrated by the whole mystery he then tells everyone he’s leaving and doubles back in disguise as a disaffected Australian worker, who has signed on to build the new dam which is being overseen by an American engineering company, much to the chagrin of the locals.

Long story short, a disguised Carter is soon introduced to the saboteurs thanks to Judy, who doesn’t know it’s really Carter. And when Carter demands to meet “the head man,” he’s nonplussed to discover it’s actually…Mona Star! Messmann has already planted a few kernels so this isn’t a total surprise, but still, it’s revealed so late in the tale that it comes off as anticlimactic. And what’s worse is the pulp stuff really comes out here, in the veritable homestretch of the tale.

For you see, Mona and her compatriots are headquartered in an underwater lair built into the Great Barrier Reef! Carter scuba-dives down to find it…and is promptly captured yet again. Here a bikini-clad Mona informs Carter that her real name is Caroline Cheng; she’s an Australian who grew up in China, and after her father was drummed out of the Australian military for demanding equality among all ethnicities, she decided to get vengeance, especially now that equality is the accepted norm.

So, she married Colonel Cheng of China’s intelligence outfit, and demanded he let her plan this whole “executioners” gambit. But, just as in The Sea Trap, Carter’s already called in an underwater strike on the location, so there follows a tension-filled climax in which they’re all caught in the cramped underwater headquarters while a US Navy destroyer launches missiles at the place.

Also, Carter goes easy on this female villain; when Mona is trapped by a giant clam along the reef (the claim itself another callback to that earlier Messmann installment), he gets her free and then pulls her to safety. But the “Oriental” side of her nature demands death before dishonor…and she intentionally swims into a pack of blood-crazed sharks! Meanwhile Carter’s looking forward to boffing Judy the bartender a whole bunch back in the States, as he’s arranged via Hawk to get her an extended visa…

While it wasn’t fantastic by any means, and kind of repetitive throughout, The Executioners wasn’t a terrible installment of the series. This is mostly because Messmann keeps things moving throughout. One interesting thing to note is that the tone is very different from The Sea Trap, likely another repercussion of the unfortunate series switch to first person.