Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Assassin #1: Manhattan Massacre

The Assassin #1: Manhattan Massacre, by Peter McCurtin
November, 1973  Dell Books

Here it is, the veritable ur-text of the Marksman series. Peter McCurtin wrote the three-volume Assassin series for Dell Books while he was writing (and editing) the Marksman series for Belmont Tower. The protagonists of these two series, despite their different names, were actually one and the same.

As I mentioned in my review of The Marksman #6, Marksman hero Philip Magellan is the same person as Assassin hero Robert Briganti. There are even installments of The Marksman that play out on elements introduced in this first volume of The Assassin, for example #7: Slaughterhouse, another McCurtin novel, which has Magellan working with the son of carnival owner Wild Bill Brady – a character mentioned in Manhattan Massacre as the man who taught young Briganti how to shoot.

But one thing missing in all those Marksman installments is Magellan’s origin story. That’s because it’s here, in the first volume of The Assassin. Interestingly, Manahattan Massacre was published after several of those Marksman novels, which would appear to confirm my theory that Belmont Tower got their product out a hell of a lot faster than the more “respectable” publishers. At any rate McCurtin pulled the same thing Nelson DeMille did with his Ryker series, where he changed his character’s name to Keller and moved over to Manor Books.  (The irony here being that DeMille likely did this because he got pissed at McCurtin, his editor, who used DeMille’s name for Ryker #3, which was really by Len Levinson.)

Anyway, Manhattan Massacre opens with the transcript of a senate committee hearing in which various government reps, including members of the FBI and CIA, discuss the recent events of September, 1972. Robert Briganti is the focus of their discussion; born in 1935, growing up in New Orleans, Briganti became a master sharpshooter in the Wild Bill Brady carnival, going on to become a salesman of military surplus, particularly in South America. In this capacity he did odd jobs for the CIA. Then ten years ago Briganti quit this life, moved to Connecticut, and opened a sporting goods store there.

Then one night Crazy Joe Coraldi, a good-looking and well-known Mafioso (who was jailed as a teen on “two convictions of sodomy,” by the way), showed up in Briganti’s store and demanded that Briganti get him some heavy-duty weaponry. Briganti told him to go to hell. Then when Briganti’s wife of ten years, Nancy, picked him up after work, their 9 year-old son Michael along for the ride, a car with New York tags sped by and opened fire on them. Nancy and Michael died on the scene. Briganti recuperated in the hospital and slipped out from under his police guard. Then he declared war on Coraldi.

I was under the incorrect assumption that The Assassin books were written in first-person. This is only true for the opening chapter, in which the senate committee plays one of the reel-to-reel tapes Briganti has sent them. In an interesting angle McCurtin didn’t keep when he changed Briganti to Magellan, Briganti records his thoughts onto audio tape and mails the tapes off to the FBI and to ABC. While this schtick didn’t make the transition to the Marksman books, it does at least explain why Magellan is so well-known to the general public, as Briganti’s tapes make for a media sensation.

McCurtin’s writing here is also different than in the Marksman books, and also another indication of the difference in quality between a Belmont Tower book and a Dell book. Honestly, some of McCurtin’s Marksman novels are awful, like Slaughterhouse. But he takes his time here, turning in a book as well-written as his first installment for the similar (and also McCurtin-created and edited) Sharpshooter series, The Killing Machine. Actually, McCurtin’s style here seems very influenced by the Parker books, with terse, no-fat description and dialog.

Another line of demarcation between Belmont Tower and Dell is page length. Manhattan Massacre is much too long for its own good, coming in at 192 pages of small print; much longer than McCurtin’s Marksman novels. This has the unfortunate effect that, while being better written, the Assassin novels come off as more slow moving than the Marksman books, with McCurtin quite clearly struggling to meet his unwieldy word count. This is mostly accomplished through Briganti’s cynical ruminations. 

Briganti is also like Parker in how he’s so cold and methodical. Rather than grieving and raging over the loss of his family, Briganti instead finds himself in this subzero sort of calm. He can’t even get worked up about it, and fakes wild anger only when trying to psych out various mobsters. But he’s more vicious than Parker ever would be, killing people even when he promises them he won’t. He figures he’ll even kill a cop if one gets in his way, and when he sneaks back into his old military surplus company to steal various weapons, he could give a shit that his actions will have dire repercussions for his old work buddies.

McCurtin as always delivers good action scenes. They aren’t very bloody – McCurtin doesn’t much play up the gore in any of his books I’ve read – but they’re very tense. Briganti’s first real score is Fallaci, Coraldi’s top guard who runs a porno theater in Brooklyn. Briganti ends up beating him nearly to death with his bare hands, the one and only time he lets his anger break his otherwise placid surface. He finishes the guy off with a few kicks to the temple, which is pretty brutal. Next he takes out the guys who made the hit on his family, Al and Rio, twin brothers who supposedly look like Frank “The Riddler” Gorshin!!

McCurtin delivers a bit of sex as well, with Briganti realizing he needs an outlet other than violence. The lucky lady turns out to be a bar whore, and Briganti goes back to her place for a little vaguely-described shenanigans. This leads to another action scene, where some hitmen try to get the drop on Briganti. But they’re just “punks,” hired goons who are no match for our merciless hero. And Brigani is smart, too; realizing that no matter how many fleabag hotels he hides in the cops or Mafia will eventually find him, he rents a furnished office in a ratty building on 907 Broadway. He knows no one would ever think to look for him in a business office.

Coraldi’s in hiding somewhere in New York, due to his war with rival mob boss Carlo Gambelli. Briganti gets in touch with the latter, who sends Briganti in the direction of a Harlem preacher named Joshua Moon, who now goes by the name Brother Mwalimu. Figuring to hell with coincidence, McCurtin has it that Briganti and Moon know each other, as Moon was also in the Wild Bill Brady carnival and indeed Briganti saved his ass from being lynched, back in 1948. But now Moon preaches to the Black Power movement, and McCurtin again page-fills with a looong sermon courtesy “Brother Mwalimu,” who tells us that Columbus was black, Abe Lincoln was a Jew who hated blacks, and John Wilkes Booth was not only a hero, but black, too!

Despite the coincedental nature of it all, the Briganti/Moon relationship is interesting and well handled, with Moon now a coke fiend who wonders why Briganti saved him all those years ago. Moon informs Briganti that Joe Coraldi is hiding in a closed police precinct in Harlem, but Briganti discovers later that it’s a trap – Carlo Gambelli’s plan is for Briganti to kill Coraldi, and then for Moon’s Black Power comrades to take out Briganti. Now, armed with a grenade launcher, a Stoner 63 machine gun, and an Uzi, Briganti ventures into Harlem to even the score.

The climactic firefight is very similar to what one would read in The Marksman, with Briganti dishing out most of the death via grenade and then mopping up what few survivors remain with his machine guns. Even Coraldi’s demise is perfunctory, but this goes well with Briganti’s now-robotic persona; he realizes he’s just going through the motions, and has now become a veritable human Terminator. Actually this also jibes well with the whole “Briganti = Magellan” deal, as Briganti thinks to himself a few times that “Robert Briganti” died with his family.

McCurtin only wrote two more Assassin novels, though obviously the Marksman books went on for much longer. I’m curious what caused the move over to Belmont Tower. Either Dell took too long to publish McCurtin’s manuscripts or maybe he just got a better deal at BT, though I doubt it; they were apparently notorious for never paying their authors. Or maybe Dell just gave McCurtin his walking papers, as that publisher really didn’t get too involved with the men’s adventure genre, and indeed The Assassin is the only men’s adventure series from Dell that I can think of at the moment. 

Anyway, I really enjoyed Manhattan Massacre, even though it was a bit too sluggish at times. But McCurtin’s polished-but-pulpish prose was almost masterful in how it captured the right vibe, and like I said the book came off as more entertaining and memorable than any the McCurtin Marksman novels I’ve read yet.


Johny Malone said...

Magellan also appears as a secondary character in "The Syndicate", another novel by McCurtin.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for letting me know about that, Johnny -- I didn't know Magellan appeared in that book. Glad I have a copy of it! Now I just need to get around to reading it...