The Blood Circus, by Thomas K. Fitzpatrick
No month stated, 1968 Fawcett Gold Medal
I’d never heard of this obscure piece of bikersploitation until I came across Zwolf’s review. His comments are on point, as The Blood Circus is an enjoyably pulpy tale that definitely has the feel of a men's adventure magazine story; it’s about a young deputy who goes undercover with The Beasts, the worst gang of hell-raising bikers in the USA – even worse than the Hell’s Angels!
At 160 pages, The Blood Circus barrels right along, Thomas K. Fitzpatrick delivering his story with a veteran pulpster’s skill. Which makes it all the stranger that I can find no other work credited to this author. The book is copyright Fawcett Gold Medal, and Thomas K. Fitzpatrick isn’t listed in Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms. But it would be hard to believe that this was the work of a one-time author. Despite its faults this book has a very polished, professional nature, as if the author made his living churning out this kind of pulp. My guess is that maybe he was indeed a men’s mag writer, and “Fitzpatrick” is just the pseudonym he used for this book. Who knows.
And, just like a men’s adventure mag story, the novel opens on a scene of atrocity, as the Beasts descend upon Calico, a ghost town near Hollywood. They run roughshod over the tourists, beating up one dude and preparing to rape his wife when the cops show up. Their leader, a shaven-skulled, muscle-bound sadist with Nazi leanings named Paul Krascoe, orders them to beat a hasty retreat. Not that Krascoe or his minions are afraid of the cops; indeed, Krascoe looks forward to the day when he can openly declare war on them and “the whole square world.”
Captain Walt Mooney, an old-liner cop in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, has had enough of this shit. He brings in Lt. Bob Waldrop of the Intelligence department and together they hatch a plan to send someone undercover, to infiltrate the Beasts; Mooney has a hunch that Krascoe’s gang is planning something. Heavy-duty weaponry has been stolen around the Los Angeles area, and Mooney suspects the Beasts are the culprits. We readers know they are, and that they’ve got everything from machine guns to bazookas. Krascoe’s plan is to start a war on society and he intimates some foreign power is behind it, but this is a plot thread Fitzpatrick ultimately leaves dangling.
Mooney and Waldrop settle on Ed Bartel, a 29 year-old deputy new to the force. Bartel is a ‘Nam vet, a biking enthusiast, and even an actor, having appeared in minor film and tv roles and in local stage productions. Bartel sees the opportunity as a surefire way to promote his career, but Peg, his wife of one year, is overly concerned about it. Peg hasn’t yet accepted the lot of being a cop’s wife, and there’s lots of friction between the two. Given that the book occurs over only a few days, Fitzpatrick luckily doesn’t devote too much of the narrative space to this matrimonial discord, but there’s enough there that you feel bad for the two.
Ordered to stop getting his hair cut and to look more unkempt (complete with a trip to the local Warner Brothers studio, where a professional makeup artist works on him), Ed gradually begins to look more like a biker. Over the course of two weeks he’s trained in biker culture, undercover methods, and self-defense. The latter element provides us with the book’s title, as Ed’s martial arts instructor, who teaches him something very much like Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, informs Ed, “Life is just a bloody circus.”
Telling a bitter Peg so long, Ed hops on his Harley chopper and scoots on over to Beast territory, in the Bell Gardens district of Hollywood. His cover is that he’s an ex-con biker from Florida who used to run with the Hell’s Angels and was told to look up the Beasts in Los Angeles. But as expected, when he meets up with them, driving around a riverbed near their hangout, the Beasts are suspicious. Krascoe immediately figures he’s a cop. Here comes Ed’s first test; to prove he’s a real biker, he has to do a trial race of six laps, chugging a beer after each lap. This he accomplishes, getting progressively wiped out, finally knocked on his ass when on the last lap he has to chug a bottle of brandy.
Krascoe sort of accepts him, but not as a full-fledged Beast. Meanwhile Krascoe’s woman, hotstuff blonde Maggie, sets her sights on Ed. Fitzpatrick is to be congratulated for specifying that Maggie is not in any way like the other biker chicks; whereas the others are grungy, unwashed and unkempt, Maggie looks like a million bucks, with clean clothes, skin, and hair, even makeup. So unlike William W. Johnstone in The Devil’s Kiss, Fitzpatrick understands that a hotstuff evil chick needs to have good hygeine. Otherwise the entire effect is ruined.
Maggie’s just as wild and cruel as the regular pulp biker chick, getting off on the outlaw nature of it all. The question is, why is she with the Beasts? This is another plot thread that Fitzpatrick never bothers to answer; Maggie ultimately is there to provide sex appeal, though to be sure there isn’t a single sex scene in the novel. She does promptly declare that she’s deciding if she’s going to let Ed “ball” her, though. Ed’s growing interest in Maggie, whose Levi’s jeans outfit fits as tightly as a “rubber scuba suit,” is another element that comes and goes in the book, and unfortunately Maggie just plain disappears in the final pages, as if Fitzpatrick forgot all about her.
After beating up a few Beasts, Ed is warmly welcomed by Krascoe. He then orders the gang on a midnight run to Mexico with no explanation. Throughout the ride Ed’s shadowed by a burly Beast named Frenchy. There are several tense moments as Ed and the gang are stopped by the cops and the suspicion plays out if his cover will hold up, or if Krascoe and gang will learn that he’s a cop. Meanwhile Peg continues to fret, and intelligence chief Lt. Waldrop sits around in his office, guzzling coffee, hoping Ed’s okay. Our hero manages to get tidbits of detail to Waldrop, but he’s never left alone very long, the suspicious Beasts watching him, especially Frenchy. He also manages to call Peg once or twice.
After Ed’s with them a few days Krasco unveils his master plan. Uniting the outlaw biker gangs into a guerrilla force, he’s going to pull the biggest robbery in history. They’re going to hold up seven blocks of downtown Los Angeles, looting the diamond stores in the area. The plan is so crazy that Ed has a hard time getting Waldrop to believe it. But Krascoe has another surprise up his sleeve: he actually pulls the job a day earlier than he announced. Ed is hauled off of his dirty matress (the Beasts live in a grungy old auto garage in Bell Gardens, by the way) at 4AM and told to get his ass moving. Now he’s desperate to get the news out, but he’s pulled along by the biker barbarian tide.
Krascoe’s plan is so audacious that it could only exist in the world of pulp fiction: a legion of machine gun-toting bikers descending on Los Angeles. The Beast leader’s got every detail down, though, from sneaking in his choppers to blocking off traffic around the seven targeted blocks. There are even snipers across from the LAPD headquarters. Unfortunately Fitzpatrick here veers into summary; so much happens over such a broad sweep of canvas, with so many characters involved, that he has to hopscotch back and forth, giving overviews of what happens. This is the novel’s biggest failing; whereas the short page length is a boon, because pulp should move fast, it’s also a bane when it necessitates skimming over so much.
But it all goes down in a scant several pages, the Beasts unleashing hell on Hollywood. We’re informed that this day will become known as “Bloody Thursday” and that ultimately thousands of civilians will die, along with around two hundred cops. Open warfare rages on the streets of Los Angeles, with the Beasts cutting loose with their stolen heavy weaponry. One thing Krascoe failed to wager on was the resourcefulness of the cops; figuring they’d be hamstrung by their pea-shooting .38 revolvers, he’s surprised to find that they’re able to get stronger weaponry and National Guard help.
Ed’s cast adrift in all this, and finally spurs into action by blowing away Frenchy and a few other Beasts. Fitzpatrick isn’t an author to dwell on the gory details, mind you, but he’s definitely got a knack for keeping the tension and pace up. But I swear this guy was a veteran pulpster under a different name because The Blood Circus suffers from that veteran pulpster speciality: the harried and unsatisfactory ending. Without any buildup or payoff Ed runs into Krascoe, who goes for his gun (did Krascoe know Ed was a cop all along? Who knows!), and Ed blows him away.
The Beasts routed, the city in flames, and Maggie completely disappeared from the text (the last we see of her she’s riding on the sidecar of a Beast chopper), the novel speeds for the end. Ed basically tells Captain Mooney to go to hell and calls Peg, to let her know he’s all right. Oh, and maybe he’ll quit the force and become a teacher. The end! We get no resolution on what happened to the rest of the Beasts nor if Krascoe was indeed getting his funding from a foreign power, despite vague mentions throughout the story that he was.
Anyway, I really did enjoy The Blood Circus, and it was only after reading it that I pondered its faults. But while I was reading it I loved it! This I guess is the problem; if I hadn’t liked it as much, I wouldn’t have expected more of it in hindsight. But given the quality of Fitzpatrick’s pulpy prose, the interesting characters, the bit of character depth, and the outlandish plot, you just sort of feel that if a couple more details had been ironed out the novel would’ve been great.
At any rate it would’ve made for a helluva ‘60s biker film. William Smith of course would’ve played Krascoe.