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.)

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