Thursday, October 29, 2015

Razoni & Jackson #3: One Night Stand

Razoni & Jackson #3: One Night Stand, by W.B. Murphy
October, 1973  Pinnacle Books

Our favorite feuding detectives return in the third installment of the short-lived Razoni & Jackson series. As expected, the novel is low on action and thrills and more focused on witty banter, running jokes, and actual crime detecting. Author Warren Murphy again proves his mastery of dialog and character, though to be sure those looking for the lurid quotient expected of the men’s adventure genre will be a little let down.

The opening is appropriately sordid, though; an attractive young woman, wearing only a trenchcoat (a la Kiss Me Deadly), flags down a random motorist one night in New York City, pleading with him to give her a lift. A pair of cops, clearly in pursuit of the lady, pull the motorist over, and she tries to hide beneath the seat as she begs the driver not to tell the cops she’s there. But the dude, bowing to authority, does exactly that. The cops – one a lanky, gaunt-faced white guy, the other a muscle-bound black dude – haul the woman out of the car and there, right in the headlights, shoot her in the head.

Perhaps the biggest puzzler of One Night Stand is that these cops do not also shoot the would-be samaritan of a motorist as well. Instead they merely get in their car and drive off, leaving one hell of a witness behind. But, had they killed the guy, Murphy wouldn’t be able to work up the mystery which lies at the core of the novel.  I had a hard time getting over this, but what the hell. The motorist gives his story to the police, and it’s yet another knock against New York’s finest, who have been coming under increasing fire thanks to the liberal scum who have taken over the justice system.

Chief among the scum is Jason McCarter, an inheritor of great wealth who decided one day to become a liberal lawyer, because liberal lawyers get the most “media space.” Championing the rights of “wrongfully accused” criminals and murderers, McCarter has becoming so powerful and famous that he’s headed for bigtime politics. He has an ace in the hole though; a dimwited clerical room detective named John Hardin, McCarter’s nephew, who hooks McCarter up with case files, which McCarter uses in court to exonerate his crooked clients.

When we meet them, Razoni and Jackson are currently trying to bust Hardin – without the knowledge of their boss, Captain Mannion. This is yet another of Murphy’s trademark humorous scenes, which has Razoni and Jackson taking out their respective lady friends (in Razoni’s case it’s his redheaded knockout of a girlfriend, Pat; for Jackson it’s his equally-attractive wife, whose name I’ve forgotten) to a fancy restaurant. What the women don’t know is this is actually a stakeout; the two cops are here to see if Hardin’s going to deliver a certain case file to McCarter. Unbeknownst to Hardin, this particular file was written by Razoni and Jackson themselves; it’s a fake, one designed to bring McCarter’s illegal practice out into the spotlight.

While it goes down smoothly, trouble ensues: a pissed-off Mannion informs our heroes the next morning that none other than Jason McCarter has been appointed by the governor (a notorious cop-hater) to look into police corruption, especially given this recent murder which was apparently perpetrated by two cops. The whole fake case angle might end up blowing up in their faces if McCarter finds out about it. Meanwhile Razoni and Jackson are given their urgent assignment: found out who really killed that young woman, who turns out to be a hooker named Claire Coppolla, and clear up the case before McCarter’s commission gets everyone fired.

As mentioned, Razoni & Jackson is not an action series by any means, even though it was packaged as yet another Pinnacle men’s adventure series. Our titular heroes use their brains more than their brawn – actually, they use their mouths more than anything else, bickering and bantering like an old married couple. This particular volume falls a little flat on the recurring jokery, though, in particular to a running gag about a “black jockey with bruises on his palms” or some such. Not that the racist-tinged barbs (from each direction) bother me, it’s just that they aren’t as funny this time out. But in between the back-and-forth our heroes try to figure out who killed Claire Coppolla and why. 

Their investigation takes them across the dingier areas of New York, from the apartment Claire shared with another young and attractive girl (and also a hooker, though only we readers know that initially) named Renee Charver, to a truckstop diner/cocktail lounge called Delaney’s where Claire supposedly did a lot of secretive business. We also get a view into the long-gone world of rampant smoking, as the plot centers around a cigarette distribution facility in which tax stamps are put on cigarette packages; a sleazebag named Kitsky runs the place and Claire’s brother, an ex-con, works there, and we’re treated to lots of detail on how the machinery operates.

The most enjoyable sequence is also the most lurid; Razoni’s girlfriend Pat is once again used as bait. Having determined that Renee is a hooker and that she ran some sort of two-girl con job with Claire, Razoni and Jackson set Pat up as a hooker and send her to a bar Renee frequents. Let’s just say the two attractive ladies become real friendly real quick, with “AC-DC” Renee inviting Pat back to her place for some all-night lesbian shenanigans! And Pat eagerly accepts!! Murphy doesn’t write the details, but he does have an exhausted Pat calling Razoni the next morning to report, with Razoni increasingly jealous, bitter, and frustrated over what he suspects Pat spent the whole night doing.

It gradually develops that Delaney’s is run by a corrupt group that cons truckers who haul cigarettes; Kitsky, the distribution center owner, has come up with a scheme where these truckers are distracted by hookers (kindly offered by the propietors of Delaney’s), who talk the truckers into letting them ride along to the next city. But when the hooker gets the trucker to pull off the road for some quickie sex, a lanky, gaunt-faced guy named Al and a muscle-bound black guy named Earl storm onto the truck, disguised as cops, and threaten to bust the trucker, as it’s against the law for them to have passengers. Eventually the trucker will cop a “deal” with them, promising to drop off a delivery of illicit cigarette crates on each future trip in exchange for the cops keeping their mouths shut.

Razoni and Jackson don’t figure all of this out until the very end, though they do realize that Claire Coppolla was killed because she’d gotten wind of something she shouldn’t have. They themselves don’t get into danger until the final pages. Planning to bust the extortion racket, Razoni goes undercover as a trucker, his rig loaned to him by the boss of a local truckyard, who turns out to be Captain Mannion’s brother. Jackson is to wait behind and show up when the two fake cops storm the truck to “bust” Razoni. But things go to hell when a drunk Detective Hardin, still pissed over that fake case scenario, shows up when Jackson’s about to leave and hands him a subpoena, demanding that he show up in court asap. Why? Hardin’s been trying to set up Razoni and Jackson as the two cops who killed Claire Coppolla.

Razoni, thinking Jackson’s about to save him, blindly drives into the ambush and is almost beaten to death, his rig crashed by Earl and Al. When Jackson gets away from Hardin, who realizes he’s made a huge blunder, he’s alive with rage, particularly when Razoni’s battered, bloodied, and unconscious body is fished out of the truck wreckage and taken to the hospital. Murphy brilliantly shows the difference between our two heroes; where Razoni is quick to rant and rave but just as quick to forget about it, Jackson is cool and calm…until he gets mad. And when he gets mad, he doesn’t quickly forget about it; when he sees Razoni’s crushed body in the hospital, he’s “boiling over” with rage, to the point where you feel sorry for the bad guys.

The climactic action scene isn’t up to the caliber of The Executioner or anything, but it’s still pretty good. Jackson heads on over to Kitsky’s distribution center, having figured out thanks to his own sideline investigation that Kitsky was actually Renee Charver’s ex-husband and likely the brains behind this extortion scheme. Armed with his .38, Jackson takes on Kitskty and his two thugs, Earl and Al. It isn’t overly violent or spectacular, but this sequence does feature the memorable moment of Jackson strapping Kitsky onto the front of his car and smashing throught he facility’s gate. Surprisingly enough, Kitsky lives through it – and promptly spills the beans to the cops, thus exonerating Razoni and Jackson.

Not to end this review on a sad note, but I recently heard from Warren Murphy’s son, Devin Murphy, the sad news that his father passed away, on September 4th of this year. Here’s a nice writeup about him from the New York Times. I’m sorry to hear Mr. Murphy has passed on, but as was the case with Burt Hirschfeld, Harold Robbins, Don Pendleton, and so many others, he left behind a huge body of work, and will of course live on through it, continuing to provide entertainment to generations of readers to come.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Run, Spy, Run (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #1)

Run, Spy, Run, by Nick Carter
February, 1964  Award Books

I’ve been curious how the Nick Carter: Killmaster series started life, so I figured it was time I checked out this first volume. It’s interesting how Run, Spy, Run sets the precedent for the 259 volumes that were to follow, quickly outlining who Nick Carter is and what gadgets and weapons he uses. But there are also little details in this first volume that would either be glossed over or forgotten entirely in the ensuing years.

First though there’s the controversy over who actually wrote this book. Most people credit it to Michael Avallone, who was hired by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel to help create the series and to be its main ghostwriter. Apparently Engel came up with the series concept, the character of Nick Carter (intending to call back to the once-popular Nick Carter character of early 20th Century pulp), and Carter’s spy agency AXE. Avallone seems to have come up with the idea of Carter naming his weapons and gadgets, which is very pulpish. But Avallone’s actual writing wasn’t met with much favor. According to Will Murray’s article “The Saga of Nick Carter: Killmaster” (The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4, 1982):

When the first Nick manuscript was submitted to Award editor Samuel H. Post, Post was dissatisfied with Avallone’s somewhat pulpish approach and his idiosyncratic style. Post and the Abramsons [ie Arnold and Robert Abramson, Universal Publishing execs who created the Award imprint] conferred and returned the story for revision, along with a synopsis Post had created for the second novel. Avallone’s revision and his draft of the second book, The China Doll, fell short of the American James Bond the others were looking for. Avallone, preferring to write like Michael Avallone, declined further revisions. Engel then turned the two manuscripts over to a young woman with no previous novel-writing experience named Valerie Moolman, who rewrote them, under Engel’s direction.

Engel had a bit more to say about this in an interview he did with Will Murray in 1981, which was eventually published in Paperback Parade #2 (1986):

I wrote the outline for the first two books and then I asked Mike to write the books themselves. Mike couldn’t write the books and I had a written understanding with him whereby if the publisher did not accept his stories, did not like his stories, then I would have a right to take my outline and give it to somebody else to write.

Finally, according to the Wikipedia page for Run, Spy, Run(!!), Valerie Moolman is the sole credited author in the Library of Congress records. All of which is to say it seems pretty clear to me that Moolman, and not Avallone, wrote this book. It’s been many years since I read a Michael Avallone novel, but one thing I do recall is his writing style was pretty unique. That unique style isn’t evident in Run, Spy, Run; in fact the writing here is pretty bland. As I read the novel something kept nagging at me, that the narrative was reading a certain way, and at last I realized what it was: Run, Spy, Run reads very much like a romance novel. Hell, there’s even a chapter titled “London Idyll” which is all about Nick and his hot new colleague Julia Baron being all lovey dovey in London.

All of which is to say, this is not the most slam-bang intro for the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. It lacks much bite, and comes off very “safe,” for lack of a better word. More focus is placed on Nick’s worries and feelings than on action. I know I sound like a sexist pig, but I suspect this is due to the female authorship. Not only that but Nick is prone to falling in love; rather than the love ‘em and leave ‘em rake of the other series writers, Moolman’s Nick Carter develops feelings for his conquests and acts, to risk sounding lame, rather gallant throughout. Compare this to the almost sadistic version of the character Manning Lee Stokes delivered, and you can see how Nick Carter changed so drastically even in his first few years.

When we meet Nick he’s on a flight back to New York, having just wrapped up a quick mission-turned-vacation in Jamaica. Like many other things in Run, Spy, Run, this is likely a reference/in-joke to the work of Ian Fleming, who wrote his James Bond novels in Jamaica and even set Dr. No there. We get a brief recap for Nick, with the interesting tidbit that he worked for the OSS in World War II, after which he apparently worked as a spy for a while, before joining the newly-formed AXE “seven years ago.” Nick Carter’s WWII background would be forgotten in the coming decades. 

Another interesting element in this first volume is the revelation that Nick’s job, so far as the world is concerned, is as a private eye. No doubt this is intended as another reference, namely to the origins of the pulp Nick Carter, but this element too was removed, and for good; the later books got it much better with Nick solely being an agent of AXE with no concerns over a dayjob cover identity. But it’s this private eye cover that makes the beginning of Run, Spy, Run believable; while in his hotel in Jamaica, someone left Nick a handwritten note begging for him to board this particular flight. I had a hard time understanding why superspy Nick Carter would board the plane, not suspecting a trap. It makes sense then that he did so because the world at large knows Nick Carter as a private investigator.

There’s a bullish dude on the flight with a steel hand, and I thought for sure this would be supervillain Mr. Judas – whom Nick has never seen, but is aware of – but it turns out to be a South American diplomat who blows up when he disembarks the plane in New York, killing several other innocents in the blast. Nick meets up with an attractive stewardess named Rita Jameson, who turns out to be the person who wrote Nick that letter. There have been three airplane explosions in the last few months, one of them of a plane piloted by Rita’s fiance, and she’s certain there’s a coverup. Meanwhile, through boss Mr. Hawk (no “David” yet, this early in the series), Nick learns that each of these planes carried right wing government officials from various parts of the West, each of whom were opposing the Red Chinese.

Long story short, there appears to be a plot to wipe out these right wingers in plane crashes and replace them with Commiesymps. (I’m surprised Obama hasn’t thought of this yet.) Instead of rushing into action, Nick sort of mills around New York with Rita Jameson (whom he does not consort with), checking leads and working up cover identities. Things finally heat up in a carriage chase in Central Park in which a gunman shoots at Nick and Rita. Poor Rita ends up dead and Nick moves on with the assignment: now he’s to shadow an American ambassador named Harcourt on a flight to London.

Even more time is wasted with Nick’s elaborate cover story, which has him posing as a bookish art professor. Hawk also sets Nick up with a partner, a hotstuff female spy named Julia Baron (Nick calls her “Julie”) who, the way she’s described, must be Eurasian or something. Julia would appear in a few more volumes over the next several years; not sure if she was eventually killed off or just written out of the series. But yet more pages are wasted on her own cover story, which has her posing as Nick’s fiance. Meanwhile the two get to screwin’ pronto, in what is the novel’s most explicit sequence, but don’t expect anything too explicit; it’s more metaphorical/lyrical than anything. And once again, ol’ Nick is developing feelings for the gal…

The flight to London is also a snoozefest, with Nick pretending to be airsick so he can go to the lavatory, again and again, scoping out his fellow passengers to detect any threats. He settles on one dude with a broken arm, and sure enough this guy tries to blow up the plane midway through the flight, the plaster of his cast hiding a bomb. Nick and Julia save the day, with the outcome that their cover is blown – hilariously enough, before they’ve even got to London! Hence all that crap we had to read about their cover stories is rendered moot. After this they decide to pose as freelance spies, here to take on the infamous and elusive Mr. Judas, who they have determined is behind the plot.

In the final quarter of Run, Spy, Run, something magical happens – it becomes a Killmaster novel. Nick and Julia, captured, stripped nude and tied to wooden crosses, find themselves in a dank cellar, the captives of Judas and his deformed henchman Braille. Judas’s first appearance is suitably memorable, and here for once we get a proper description of the sadist:

Judas was a symmetrical man. Short, well-proportioned, compact; body as militant and cut-from the-mould as a Prussian Junker. In action, it would be a flying wedge of strength and iron control. The face and the strange right hand compelled attention.

Judas’ face was a shining globe of hairless, bloodless features, a one-color, one-surface mask of precision that might have been cast from an assembly line die. The eyes were slits which showed no more than narrow, unfathomable pools of liquid fire. The nose was small in the globular face, hardly raised above the flat cheek bones, finely chiseled, ruler-straight. The huge, permanently-grinning mouth beneath it would have looked more appropriate on a skull; some of Judas’ face had been lost in a long-ago accident and had never quite been replaced. Apart from the hideous grin, there was no expression on the face, save a fixed one of watching, of waiting, of preparedness to strike. The head, brows and lids were completely bald. It was not a view to be savored up close.

And as for that “strange right hand,” which Judas claims to have lost thanks to his own carelessness with a bomb he was trying to plant on a would-be victim:

The five fake fingers extended stiffly, shot toward Nick. Suddenly they halted, inches from his chest. There was a click, and a nasty little miracle occurred. The forefinger grew. The covering silver receded and a switchblade knife of gleaming steel paused a hair’s breadth from Nick’s throat.

So clearly, Judas was intended as a combo of Blofeld and Dr. No, with the bald head and deformed face of the former and the steel claws of the latter. Interestingly though, at this point in the Bond films Blofeld’s face had not been revealed (and in the Fleming novels Blofeld looked entirely different, and indeed drastically changed his own appearance in each of the three novels he appeared in), yet Judas’s mutilated face is almost a precursor to Donald Pleasance’s version of Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Could the producers of the Bond films have been reading the Killmaster books?? 

Judas’s henchman, a blind brute jokingly named Braille, is even more monstrous, an “unspeakably hideous human being” who is “a mockery of mankind:”

He was very tall and very wide. His shoulders hunched forward, his thick knees bent a little more than necessary when he walked. Long arms ended in great knotted hands. His face was horribly pitted and scarred. Putrescent-looking lumps bulged from his forehead and neck. The diseased appearance of the flesh gave a crawling, loathsome quality to his incredible face.

Unfortunately this sequence doesn’t play out as over-the-top as it would in later installments; Nick instead manages to get a suddenly-gullible Judas to fall for a stupid trick (namely, that one of the items he lifted from Nick is really a bomb, one that’s set to blow). After Nick kills Braille in an unspectacular fight, he and Julia rush off to safety. From there it’s back to the bland feel of the rest of the novel, with Judas kidnapping Harcourt and basically pleading with Nick to meet him somewhere and talk deals.

The finale continues the low-stakes trend; rather than the Killmaster assaulting a compound of jumpsuited guards, he instead has another face-to-face with Judas, this time in a house near Piccadilly. Judas, holding a gun on Nick and Julia, reveals that Harcourt is bound in the house’s cellar; Judas wants Nick to work for him. When Nick refuses, Judas says he’s wired the entire house to blow. This sequence, which strives for tension, is pretty stupid, as Judas reveals they have ten friggin’ minutes until the house explodes. Finally Julia (not even Nick!) realizes they don’t have to just stand around and wait for the explosion(?!), and Nick gets in a brief scuffle with Judas, during which he shoots off Judas’s left hand (which explains why Judas has two steel claws in future volumes).

Of course, Judas escapes, and Harcourt is freed – and the house doesn’t even explode. The entire thing was just a bluff, yet Nick is certain Mr. Judas is an evil genius and knows they will meet again someday. We also get a brief scene from Judas’s viewpoint where he swears vengeance on Nick. Meanwhile, Nick and Julia are happy they can spend a little time in London together in a veritable Happily Ever After.

Moolman’s writing (or is it Avallone’s? Or Avallone and Moolman’s?) has that same polished feel as anything else Lyle Kenyon Engel produced, which lends credence to Engel’s claims that he edited and rewrote most everything he produced. I’m starting to suspect that the uniform feel in Engel’s productions is due to Engel himself. But it must be said that Moolman is a terrible POV-hopper; the first few pages in particular are a nightmare of hopscotching perspectives, as Moolman bounces from the thoughts of one character to another with no white space to alert the reader of the POV changes.

Not only that, but as mentioned Moolman’s style, at least in this first novel, is more akin to a romance novel. Run, Spy, Run just lacks bite, coming off for the most part as overwritten and padded, usually shying away from the sex and violence. I’m not saying it was terrible, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as other volumes of the series I’ve read.

Bonus note: Run, Spy, Run was included in its entirety in the 100th volume of the series, Dr. Death (1975), so if you pick up that one you’ll get double Nick for your buck. Actually triple Nick, as it also contains a Nick Carter pulp story from 1898.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Penetrator #25: Floating Death

The Penetrator #25: Floating Death, by Lionel Derrick
April, 1978  Pinnacle Books

I’m pretty sure Andy Ettinger was the editor of the Pinnacle line, and if I were in his shoes in 1978 I think I’d come to the conclusion that I needed a third “Lionel Derrick” for the Penetrator series. It’s becoming increasingly evident that the two writers for the series, Mark Roberts and Chet Cunningham, were becoming downright bored with it. In fact I wonder why Ettinger didn’t bring on a third writer – I mean that’s the whole point of a house name, right, so you can easily switch authors? – because reading Floating Death makes it clear that the series was in trouble.

Mark Roberts handles this one, and it’s a dud on the level of Cunningham’s #22: High Disaster. The main plot should give you an idea of its lameness: it’s about cows being killed in Wisconsin! But beyond that Roberts is more concerned, once again, with pedantic details about flying small aircraft; the book is even dedicated to a pilot acquantance of Roberts’s. I might sound like I’m making much out of nothing but no lie, there are pages and pages about how to fly various small aircraft. As if that weren’t boring enough, Roberts will also occasionally deliver disertations on some new gadget owned by Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin, like a leather belt that can be used as a weapon. But while it sounds cool, Roberts describes it so thoroughly that it eventually comes off like copy from a Cabela’s catalog.

But anyway, those cows. They’re being killed off in rural Wisconsin due to a claimed infection that might spread to humans if the cattle aren’t destroyed. The Penetrator hears about all this in the news and decides to investigate. He just happens to have a friend named Olie who was his buddy back in his college football days; Olie now plays for the Green Bay Packers and owns his own dairy farm in Wisconsin. Meanwhile we see the plight of the farmers over there, watching as their cattle are shot down by government thugs led by a skeletal simp named Dr. Creighton Thornesby.

We gradually learn that this dude was once a military scientist but quit because his germ warfare ideas were ridiculed. This fake cattle deal is the first step in his vengeance scheme; ultimately he wants to douse certain cities with infectious diseases so that the SIE can take over the country. The SIE is a new world order-type conglomerate last seen in #3: Capitol Hell; they’re still around, though in dwindled numbers, and Thornesby’s SIE contact is an equally-evil snob named Theophilus Wen, who claims to have endured the Penetrator’s assault on SIU back in that third volume, but I don’t remember the character. Not that it matters, as Wen is a nonentity in this book.

No, more focus is placed on Hardin flying various small airplanes. Once he gets to Wisconsin he briefly meets up with Olie, who himself soon disappears from the text, being yet another victim of Creighton Thornesby. This leads to a part that seems to come from another novel where Hardin visits Olie’s grieving widow and kids and gives them pep talks. Speaking of which, everything depicted on the cover happens in the novel, all save for the nude blonde; the only woman in the book is Olie’s widow, and she sure as hell doesn’t strip down for Hardin. But we get more page-consuming detail where Hardin poses as the PR man for the Packers and gets an interview with Thornesby, who again delivers the “virulent strain” story as justification for the cattle butchery.

Eventually we learn that the mad doctor’s plan hinges on something he read about once, a method the Japanese attempted in World War II: putting nerve gas in balloons and sending them off on the wind currents. Thornesby has his own strain of various diseases, in particular the black death, which he wants to unleash on the country in this way. The overall plan is to kill off livestock so that America is on the verge of starvation, and then mop up the survivors with various germ warfare so the SIE can rule over the survivors and start a new world. But again, all of this is lost amid the greater focus on flying small airprlanes and the new gadgets Hardin now uses in his fight on crime.

Speaking of which, Hardin has a few new ones this time out, like a shotgun that can be turned into a grenade launcher, and back on the damn plane angle he also has a new aircraft that he militarizes. Most interestingly we also learn this installment that he has a friggin’ cherry red ’57 Chevy, one that he’s modified into a veritable armored racehorse. (But sadly Hardin doesn’t even drive the damn thing.) Also curiously enough, Hardin’s “wise Indian” mentor, David Red Eagle, is in this volume revealed to also be Hardin’s military technology guru. Previous volumes have, I believe, merely portrayed him as the Penetrator’s advisor on “the old ways,” but now we’re told that Red Eagle has a college degree and a mastery of technology.

The militarized plane is used in a goofy sequence that could almost come out of a Spider novel: Hardin launches an attack on one of Thornesby’s staging areas, on an island just off San Diego, chasing just-released balloons that are filled with the influenza virus and shooting at them through the window of his airplane! He gets doused with the flu virus contained within the balloons, but even despite crashing in the forest and hiking a few miles, as well as swimming across a large portion of the Pacific, all the Penetrator has to do is scrub himself with antibacterial soap and practice some of his Indian magic skills and he’s good as new.

The climactic action sequence is along the same lines, but less spectacular. Hardin, armed with a Mossberg shotgun, ambushes another of Thornesby’s staging areas, this time on a farm back in Wisconsin. It’s almost perfunctorily written, with Hardin blasting away a few goons and lab technicians just as they’re preparing to unleash a modified strain of black death. Theophilus Wen is almost casually dispatched, but Thornesby gets more of a suitable comeuppance…almost, at least. Revealing that the Penetrator has inadvertently dosed them all with the black death (including Hardin himself), Thornesby says that they’re all walking dead men, as there’s no antidote. Hardin almost lets the bastard die in agony, but decides someone might find him and attempt to save him, so merely shoots him in the head.

The epilogue is given over to Hardin’s epic battle against his black death contamination. At death’s door, with sores and whatnot erupting all over his body, Hardin retreats to a “medicine cave,” where David Red Eagle works as a medicine man and fights for the Penetrator’s life, using ancient herbs and Indian magic. Thirty days or so later Hardin is back to his old self and returns to the world – only to be brought papers by Professor Haskins regarding his next mission, which will have Hardin looking into the “Mexican brown” situation.

Finally, this volume features my favorite arbitrary action scene yet in The Penetrator: clearly realizing he’s gone too long without a single action scene, Roberts has our hero encounter a pair of would-be muggers…right outside of a Red Lobster! Hardin kills one of them and beats the other to a pulp, and then goes in for a nice seafood meal. I can’t count the number of times that’s happened to me at a Red Lobster.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Steal Big

Steal Big, by Lionel White
May, 1960  Fawcett Gold Medal

Known as the “king of the capers,” Lionel White is apparently most remembered as the guy who wrote the novel that Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing was based on. That novel was titled Clean Break, and it’s one I don’t have; strangely, for an author who was once so popular and well-published, White’s books appear to be pretty scarce on the used books market. I don’t think any of them have been reprinted, even by Hard Case Crime. At the very least, his books are overpriced these days, but I was able to score this one cheap.

Steal Big is a classic heist story. A professional thief named Donovan has just gotten out of prison and is already planning his next big caper: this one should bring in at least half a million dollars. He’s put together a team of five people, and they’re also the classic diverse lot demanded by this subgenre, from an alcoholic old woman to an ex-boxer. Or as Donovan himself considers them:

An evil old woman who could steal the pennies from a dead man’s eyes. A puny, psychopathic sadist who likes to kill for the fun of it. A punch-drunk moron who by all rights should be in a side show. A college boy who hates the world because he figured he took a bum rap. A girl who isn’t dry behind the ears yet and who only wants to go for the ride because she thinks she’ll get enough money out of it to spring her old man out of the clink.

The putting together of the team is another hallmark of the heist story, but White skips it here; Donovan, who is described himself as getting on in years, has already put his team together when the novel begins. Told in third-person, the book hopscotches across the perspectives of these characters, sometimes jarringly so (White is a firm POV-hopper, with perspectives changing between paragraphs with no space to warn the reader). However, White also plays interesting tricks with time. He writes sequences and then doubles back and write them from the perspectives of other characters, which occasionaly lends the narrative a bit of a surprise factor.

Donovan is an old pro, along the lines of Parker, but more of a cipher. We really don’t get much of a peek into his head or how he even devised this big job, which is the robbing of the Needle Trades Bank in Manhattan. We do know that Donovan found out about the place thanks to Clarence Pachel, the “psychopathic sadist” mentioned above; Clarence is a twenty-something freak who works as a bank teller but years to be a great criminal along the lines of Donovan. Again, though it isn’t really elaborated on in the narrative, it’s apparent via subtext that Clarence is screwed up thanks to his mother, the above-mentioned Mama, a hard-drinking old lady who runs a rooming house in Yonkers where she lives with her son and the rest of the heist team.

Donovan’s right-hand man of sorts is Bill Barker, the “college boy,” who did time for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight. Donovan and Barker were cellmates, and Barker, pissed off at the world for the bad hand he was dealt, became very interested in working jobs with Donovan. Now he lives in Mama Pachel’s rooming house, getting ready for the score and lusting after blonde hotstuff Carol. Carol’s father is another Donovan of sorts, but one who got caught on a big job and was handed over the veritable death sentence of a few decades imprisonment. Barker and Carol sort of have a thing for each other, but spend most of their time fighting and telling each other how much they dislike one another.

Carol is an interesting character who is again lost amid the crush of too many characters and too little pages. It’s vaguely explained that her dad was put away by a corrupt prison board and Carol hopes to buy them off with her share of the Needle Trades score. Meanwhile everyone in the house has made their own plans with Carol for after the job, from Donovan, who expects her to go off with him to Canada “for about a year” until the heat blows over, to Mama and Clarence, who expect her to leave with them – Mama because she’s sort of raised Carol (in her own way) ever since Carol’s father was sent to prison ten years ago, and Clarence because he wants to get in Carol’s pants.

The final member of the heist team also has his own designs on Carol: Jo-Jo, a monstrous ex-boxer with a bad drinking habit who comes on strong to everyone save for Donovan. Jo-Jo is like a loyal puppy to Donovan, doing whatever he demands. Donovan explains to Barker that Jo-Jo once “accidentally” killed a girl while raping her(!) and Donovan, seeing opportunity, saved him from the cops. In exchange, the peabrained lummox became Donovan’s slave. In all honesty, Jo-Jo’s presence on the team is unnecessary, despite Donovan’s constant claim that he’s as central to the score as everyone else. However the reason Donovan gives is very lame – Jo-Jo’s there due to his “artistry” with a shotgun. What kind of “artistry” does one need with a shotgun??

Jo-Jo is there for narrative convenience, so he can add dissension and tension to the team. Mostly because, within the first several pages of the novel, he gets wiped-out drunk and attempts to rape Carol (apparently rape happens frequently in Leonard White’s novels), only stopped at the last moment by Barker, who tries to kill him. In the end Jo-Jo is confined to his room in the rooming house, looked up until the Needle Trades job. Meanwhile Donovan tries to quiet the unrest among his team while taking them on more practice runs; the novel opens with a heist on a Queens bank, and later there’s one on a bank in New Rochelle. Here more tension develops, as Clarence secretly goes on the second job despite being dismissed from it by Donovan.

White excels at the heightened tension of the heist, though when things blow up he doesn’t get very much into the nitty gritty. For here in the New Rochelle heist, Clarence, in disguise, surprises his teammates by just happening to be in the bank they’re about to rob (and they aren’t surprised in a good way, especially Donovan), and he proves his sadistic leanings by blowing away a hapless guard. When Donovan demands Clarence be left behind to fend for himself, Clarence hijacks the car of a random passerby and later kills him, too. This all culminates with Clarence too confined to his room in the Yonkers house!

Meanwhile Donovan continues to plan the big score. White doesn’t really give us the full details, instead taking us through some of Donovan and Barker’s daily planning activities to give us a hint of what’s to come when the job goes down. Donovan also whets our appetite for bloody violence when he buys guns and grenades from the in-jokingly named Kubric Novely Company, which is a front for Donovan’s go-to arms supplier. (And yes, White spells “Kubric” without the “k.”) But there isn’t much violence to be found in Steal Big; when characters are shot, they merely fall down. Same goes for the sex, the closest we get being Jo-Jo’s attempted rape of Carol, which hardly counts, unless you’re into that sort of thing for some crazy reason.

Donovan’s plan is accordingly convoluted, from Barker starting up a fake moving company to converting a stable into a hideout. Mama’s part of the scheme also shows how technology has changed over the decades: she buys a portable tape recorder from a New Yorker company, and it’s not only the size of a suitcase, but, along with a microphone and six tapes, costs her $576.00!! This element was likely considered novel back in 1960, as Donovan records a series of terse commands which are played for the bank patrons during the heist. The end result is they have no idea how many people are actually robbing the bank, and think several people are involved, with guns pointed at them from all directions.

The Needle Trades heist goes down in the final several pages, and plays out very well. Donovan’s point that each member of the team is essential bears out, but at the same time their tasks are so menial anyone could’ve done them. Barker waits in the getaway car, Donovan, Clarence, and Jo-Jo pull off the actual bank heist, Carol drives another car to divert the cops, and Mama waits back in a loft overtop the converted stable, where she’ll operate a gizmo that secretly opens the door so Barker can park the getaway car in there, with the team then getting into the fake delivery service van which is waiting there for them. But as demanded by this subgenre, things don’t go as smoothly as planned. 

It isn’t your classic case of a heist gone bad, more so how things spiral apart because of a slight misstep in the plan. Carol turns out to be the cause, as she almost misses the cop she’s supposed to distract and thus ends up wrecking her car into his. Not only that, but due to various reasons the payoff isn’t anywhere near what was expected; despite it being the payday for the various garment district companies the Needle Trades provides banking duties for, the heisted cash turns out to be a lot less than half a million: it only comes out to be $750,000.

The finale is more of a case of everyone turning against one another, with a bad-luck patrolman named Jim Gallagher – the guy Carol crashed into – stumbling onto their hideout after some crude detective work. It’s all sort of like Reservoir Dogs, as a captured and beaten Gallagher is about to meet his grisly end, before Barker announces he’s gotten sick of this whole messed-up heist. Steal Big features one of the more abrupt finales in a novel, with two main characters pefunctorily killed off within the span of a page, and then Barker and Carol announcing they’re going to call the cops and turn back over the $750k!!

While it wasn’t perfect, Steal Big was still fun to read, mostly because I’ve always enjoyed the heist genre. Maybe someday I’ll seek out more of White’s work. Interestingly enough, later in the ‘60s White tried his hand at an installment of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series (The Mind Poisoners, 1966), but his manuscript apparently veered so much from the series formula that producer Lyle Kenyon Engle had to get Valerie Moolman, his go-to fixit author, to rewrite most of it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Peking & The Tulip Affair (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #42)

Peking & The Tulip Affair, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Another of those Nick Carter: Killmaster installments that has a back cover that appears to describe a totally different novel, Peking & The Tulip Affair is most notable because it happens to be two stories in one book: a 112 novel of sorts and an unrelated short story that runs to 39 pages. Also notable is that this was the one and only volume of the series written by Arnold Marmor, who appears to have written many sci-fi and mystery stories. 

Marmor also published, under his own name, a lot of sleaze; I have a book of his from 1973, titled Cinema Sinners, and it’s straight-up hardcore porn. While Peking & The Tulip Affair has a lot of sex in it, it’s not explicit in the least, usually in the fade to black category. But it must be said that Nick (as Marmor and other early ghostwriters referred to Carter in these early, pre-first person POV years) scores a whole bunch, particularly with a Chinese hooker named Lotus who serves as his contact in Peking. I think about every scene they have together ends with them having sex.

But back to the misleading back cover copy, which states: “..the lethal hunt takes Killmaster from a bizarre Red Chinese bordello to a laboratory manned by robots, to the opulent headquarters of a macabre neo-Nazi movement!” Well, as was the case with The Red Rays, none of that shit’s in the actual book. Once again I can only conclude that series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel had a certain book in mind, commissioned the cover art and back cover copy (perhaps even writing it himself)…and was then delivered a manuscript that just barely met his request. For there is no “laboratory manned by robots” (but dammit I wanted to read about one), and the “opulent” neo-Nazi headquarters is nothing more than a hut in the jungle.

I’d say the blame goes to Marmor, who, according to Will Murray’s article “The Saga of Nick Carter: Killmaster” (The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4, 1982), turned in a manuscript that was a few thousand words short of the requirement. Instead of expanding upon his work (like, you know, maybe including those friggin’ robots), he instead wrote an unrelated short story which was published along with his novel. This is strange, because according to the same article, Lyle Kenyon Engel usually rewrote the vast majority of the Killmaster manuscripts, sometimes even writing entire books himself (it appears that many of the books that are credited to George Snyder might have really been written by Engel). So why didn’t Engel flesh out Marmor’s manuscript? Who knows.

As it stands, Peking, the “novel” that starts off this volume of the series, is a middling effort, undermined by simplistic writing that borders on the juvenile. (Random example of Marmor’s prose: “It was a nicely furnished apartment with Oriental doodads all over the place.”) The plot itself is also pretty threadbare, though it has promise: Nick’s latest mission has him going to Peking, where a new drug called Agent Z is reportedly being created for the ChiComs. This drug can brainwash a man almost instantly, and it’s Hawk and AXE’s concern that it might be used to transform Western politicians and whatnot into Red Chinese supporters.

This is another of those missions where Nick goes in without his customary weapons: all he’s given is a fountain pen which contains another top secret drug, one which puts a person into suspended animation for seven days. One shot and your victim will appear to be quite dead, only coming around a week later or if you give him a shot of the antidote (also contained in Nick’s pen). Agent Z is the greater threat, and it’s been made by Walther Kerner, a former Nazi who is now in Peking, no doubt creating the drug for the neo-Nazi movement rather than the Chinese government, despite their support. To ensure his loyalty the ChiComs have even set Kerner up with a mistress, hotstuff spy Sim Chan who herself is a chemist; the novel opens with Nick looking at a nude photo of Sim Chan, which Hawk has gotten hold of somehow.

Nick’s more driven because the infamous Judas is apparently involved with Kerner and Agent Z. Nick’s got a burnin’ yearnin’ to kill the sonufabitch but good this time. However, Judas is only referred to as such once or twice in the very beginning, after which he’s referred to as “Bormann.” In some earlier volume of Killmaster, Judas’s true identity was apparently hinted as being Martin Bormann, infamous Nazi bastard; of course, this was long before it was verified that Bormann had been dead since 1945. But confusingly, in other Killmaster novels, like the later The Sea Trap, Judas is just “Judas” and his being Bormann isn’t mentioned.

At any rate, Bormann is the villain of the piece, and whether he’s Judas or not is moot; Nick could care less one way or the other. He’s the same deformed monster as Judas, described thusly: “No hands. Just claws. Stainless steel claws. And a face that was no face. Just a thousand scars.” The scars are there due to botched plastic surgery, so that Bormann has what is referred to throughout as a “frozen face.” Bormann can also use his steel claws like normal hands, just like Dr. No; he can even fire a Luger with them. And he himself has a burnin’ yearnin’ to kill Nick Carter, with the two characters often musing over their desire to off one another.

“Musing” is a big factor in Peking; there are many scenes of Nick sitting in a darkened room and brooding over Bormann or his lot in life as a spy. Nick is pensive (as he himself puts it) throughout, prone to ruminations about death and danger and how much longer until his time is up. It gets to be monotonous after a while and wouldn’t be so bad if there were livlier (or at least bloodier) action to spruce things up. But really Nick just gets in a few scuffles here and there, and Marmor’s barebones writing extends to the bloodless action scenes as well, which are almost of an outline nature, ie “Nick shot two of the men down,” and etc.

Anyway, Nick gets to Peking only to discover that his contact has been killed. But the man’s daughter, a petite hooker named Lotus, is there and claims to know all her father knew. More importantly, the two get at it straight away, which is practically a given seeing as how Lotus is a prostitute. Over the course of the novel Nick grows feelings for Lotus, or at least as much as he’s capable of; but then, Nick Carter is kind of a romantic dupe throughout Peking. The novel even opens with him trying to figure up how to break up with his latest flame, a senator’s daughter in New York named Selina Stanton.

Lotus takes Nick out to the Chinese boondocks in which “the Germans” secretly work under the watchful eye of the Red Chinese. Nick has Lotus sew him up a ninja-type suit (humorously enough, he just assumes she can sew) and he sneaks around the compound. Brief “action” here as Nick injects several sleeping Germans and Chinese with the drug in his pen. Later these poor bastards will be assumed dead and thus buried…while in reality still being alive! Nick’s main objective is to find Bormann and kill him, but the man himself is busy dealing with Sim Chan and her growing suspicions about his real plans for Agent Z, which has yet to be finalized.

Per series custom, Nick is captured late in the game, stripped down and graced with a brief tete-a-tete with Bormann. Instead of putting a bullet in Nick’s head, Bormann instead decides to use Agent Z on him, an idea devised by Sim Chan. (Anyone expecting that evil Sim Chan – who favorably appraises Nick’s body – will have her way with the Killmaster will be sorely disappointed; it doesn’t happen.) Instead Lotus saves Nick, which takes us into the tepid “climax.” Various of Bormann’s people kill one another off while Nick gets in a brief (and unexciting) fight with Captain Stryker, Bormann’s chief henchman and a former SS bastard.

Nick doesn’t even have much to do in the finale, which occurs in a hotel apartment and sees Sim Chan and Bormann fighting each other while Nick ducks for cover. The novel ends with practically everyone dead save for Nick, with Bormann’s fate in question: he jumps through a window, just like Hitler at the end of every episode of Danger 5, and Nick fires a few futile shots at him. But he’s certain some of the shots struck home…so will Bormann finally die? Nick assumes he will, which of course is a stupid assumption. This is though a neat narrative trick; earlier in the book Sim Chan taunts Bormann that even he isn’t impervious to bullets, yet Marmor intimates in the finale that he is.

The Tulip Affair follows, complete with a title and copyright page, and it’s more along the lines of a basic espionage tale. Mark Harrison, an AXE agent in Thailand, is killed in the opening pages, and Nick is called away from his latest flame, a young widow named Kris Bancroft, to go figure out what the hell’s going on. Hawk suspects that Tulip, the codename of AXE’s top agent in Bangkok, has turned and is behind Harrison’s murder and the murders of other AXE agents in South Asia. Nick refuses to believe this, as he and Tulip are friends. What follows is a very slow-paced story with Ian Fleming-esque topical flourishes about Thailand and hardly any action.

Marmor, that old sleaze vet, manages to work in some (fade to black) sex, courtesy a random woman Nick meets while in Bangkok. But for the most part this one’s forgettable, comprised of Nick following clues as he tries to figure out if Tulip has gone to the other side or not. The story climaxes with a nighttime assault on a remote island in which Tulip, who is indeed a Commie agent now, is hiding. But forget about any action; Nick merely hides in the darkness and shoots Tulip as he runs by!

So much for The Tulip Affair, then, and so much for Arnold Marmor’s work on the Nick Carter: Killmaster series.

Monday, October 12, 2015

So Wicked My Love

So Wicked My Love, by Bruno Fischer
October, 1954  Fawcett Gold Medal

I recently read the novella “We Are All Dead” by Bruno Fischer, which originally appeared in a 1955 issue of Manhunt and was later collected in Maxim Jakubowski’s anthology The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction (review forthcoming!). I enjoyed it so much that I immediately picked up a few of Fischer’s novels.

Fischer certainly sounds like an interesting guy. He cut his teeth in the pulps, writing weird menace stuff in the ‘30s and ‘40s as Russell Gray. I read one of his shudder pulps a few years ago (not realizing at the time that Gray was Fischer and would eventually go on to writing pulp crime), and the shit was shocking – and I don’t just mean shocking “for its time.” It was hardcore torture porn sleaze, with women being roasted and flayed and etc. But Fischer wrote this kind of stuff for a living, and then, when the paperback boom of the late ‘40s began, he rebranded himself as a crime author under his own name, and apparently went on to great success.

Like “We Are All Dead,” So Wicked My Love also started life as a Manhunt novella; it originally appeared as “Coney Island Incident” in the November, 1953 issue. Fischer must’ve expanded greatly upon this story as the novel itself runs to 174 pages of small print. But given his pulp roots, Fischer is such a skilled writer that the novel speeds by. Sure, there’s a lot of padding, stuff that should’ve been taken out, and the plot sort of gets repetitive after a while, but the book just has that hardboiled vibe so many other such novels fail to attain. And you can see why Fischer had so many readers in his day; his writing is so good and so professional that you can’t help but admire his skill.

It all starts one summer day on Coney Island; Ray, a young vet of WWII who co-owns a trucking company in Manhattan with his dad, is trying to relax on the overcrowded beach when someone accidentally kicks sand in his face. It’s a pretty girl with flaming red hair, and Ray realizes he knows her: they grew up in the same part of New York and her name is Cherry Drew. He calls for her, but Cherry appears to ignore him, looking concerned about something, but later comes back and claims she didn’t recognize him. Cherry appears to have something heavy on her mind, but then so does Ray, as his fiance Florence broke up with him the night before. In a fit of pique he gives Cherry the engagement ring; otherwise he was just going to throw it in a sewer.

Cherry begs Ray to take her out of the city and at length he gives in to her pleas. They go back to her flophouse and she strips down for him, but before they can do the deed a thug comes in with a gun and demands money from Cherry. There was an armored truck robbery the day before, you see, with a guard killed and eighty thousand dollars stolen, and witnesses claim the getaway car was driven by a pretty young girl with red hair. Ray punches out the thug and Cherry produces a knife and coldly stabs him a few times, then helps Ray stash the body beneath the bed. So yes, Cherry is in fact the getaway driver, and what’s more she’s stolen the loot from her former partners and wants Ray to take off with her.

Eventually this leads to an entertaining sequence where Ray and Cherry are hunted at the Coney Island amusement park, Cherry’s former comrades stalking them in the crowd. Ray ends up taking out one of them with the rifle at a shooting gallery, after which he and Cherry split up. Ray, still holding the eighty thousand, goes home to find Florence, his ex, waiting for him. She’s realized she loves him and wants to marry him…oh, and where’s the engagement ring? He tells her he threw it in a sewer (which he tells himself is exactly what he sort of did) and they kiss and make up. They plan to get married, and meanwhile Ray stashes the loot somewhere and gives the cops an anonymous tip where they can find it.

Here is where the story expansion clearly occurred, as the tale is for the most part over now. Cherry’s still out there, as are her former comrades who now want Ray’s blood as well, but the money’s gone and our hero gets married, which as Sam Clemens once said is the end of any story. But So Wicked My Love spans an entire year, and during it Cherry Drew will come back into Ray’s life again and again, causing him nothing but pain and misfortune each time. But each time she is still wearing that engagement ring, which she refuses to return to Ray, saying it’s the only thing anyone’s ever given her without expecting something in return.

First she bumps into Ray and Florence at a nightclub. Cherry, her hair now blonde, already has a new man, but she still wears the ring Ray gave her. Florence clearly notices but buys Ray’s story that it’s just a coincidence that it’s the same style ring as the one he bought for her. Meanwhile Cherry insists Ray visit her; she’s now in a swank penthouse, put up by her sugar daddy. That night she almost gets a drunk Ray to sleep with her, but her sugar daddy barges in and an arbitrary scene ensues in which a dirty cop threatens to jail Cherry as a hooker. Ray goes off on the sugar daddy and shames him and then pays the cop twenty bucks to go away.

Now Cherry’s lost her swank digs, and she still blames Ray for giving away “her” eighty thousand dollars. She demands a thousand bucks from him, which he “owes” her, so she can get to safety in Mexico. Ray gives her the money but Cherry ends up getting caught by her old criminal pals, and is used as bait, calling him late at night and claiming she was abducted and mugged and is now in a remote log cabin in New Jersey. Ray, who has gotten married in the interim, kisses Florence goodbye, whips out his old service .45, and drives out to New Jersey. This is the highlight of the book, as Ray becomes a veritable Mack Bolan, taking out one thug and then shooting the leader of the pack in a gunfight as he saves Cherry.

This really is the end of the book, really, but we’re only halfway through. Instead it’s really just the end of the crime/suspense angle, for the most part. Rather, So Wicked My Love becomes more of a drawn-out soap opera sort of thing in the final half. Cherry again pops up again and again, demanding this or that from Ray, trying hard to get him to fall for her, and Ray constantly finds himself at her bidding. Not because he lusts for her, but because he pities her, and also because he realizes he’s to blame for her miserable lot in life: Cherry grew up in poverty, her father the town drunk, and Ray blew her one chance for freedom when he gave back that eighty thousand.

An interesting note is that Cherry’s sexiness is only played up during her first appearance (clearly the material from the original story). Here Fischer often mentions her big ol’ boobs and nice physique and attractive face. As the book progresses, Cherry’s sexy looks are downplayed and instead Fischer only notes her babyish face; or, as the book nears its close, her tawdriness, how she’s truly become the daughter of her drunkard father, a cheap floozy just looking for her next bottle of booze. It’s an interesting trick Fischer pulls off, as he makes the reader just as attracted to Cherry as Ray is when he meets her, but as the book progresses we gradually begin to both detest and pity her, the same as Ray does.

In other words, Cherry is in no way a “sexy female villain” or even a femme fatale. She’s more annoying than anything, constantly whining or “wheedling,” as Fischer puts it. No one can do anything right, so far as she’s concerned, and she’s overly critical and demeaning and bossy. So she’s more like the average wife than a sexy female villain!! I’ve read that Fischer, like Gil Brewer, was fond of using dangerous females in his books, but just judging from the two books I’ve so far read by each author, Brewer goes more for the archetypal pulp villainess whereas Fischer goes for something a bit deeper, as Cherry Drew is a very well-drawn character and not a mere caricature.

But the novel does tend to go on too long (just like my reviews), turning into a veritable soap opera as Cherry appears again and again in Ray’s life, getting drunker and more slovenly each time, yet still wearing that ring and still harping for him. The crime vibe briefly returns when Cherry and her juvenile delinquet-esque husband of a few months become armed robbers, Cherry dubbed “the blonde bandit” by the newspapers. But the husband’s soon caught (another man destroyed by Cherry, muses Ray) and once again Cherry’s coming to Ray for help, as he’s the only person she’s ever been able to rely on. It’s at this point that Ray tells Florence everything, and she’s one of those super-understanding wives who only exist in fiction; she tells Ray he’s basically a hero and loves him even more.

I thought the inciting incident would return for the finale – one member of the heist gang, a sadist named The Barber, is still unaccounted for by novel’s end, and I figured he’d show up in the eleventh hour for revenge – but instead it all continues on the soap opera thread. Exactly a year after the beginning of the novel, Ray and Florence rent a beach house and are having a grand time, when Cherry shows up. This time she’s finally lost the ring (sold for four hundred bucks), and she’s even more slovenly than before; now she’s a brunette. That night a drunken Cherry waltzes around the house nude, having already unsuccessfully thrust herself on Ray, and the next afternoon she tries to kill Florence – hating her for “stealing” Ray from her.  Ray snatches the weapon from her in time and kicks her out of the house, telling her he is done with her for good now.

Fischer delivers a downbeat ending (SPOILER ALERT: Cherry slits her own goddamn wrists in the bathtub!), but I have to say I didn’t mind it. As mentioned above, Cherry Drew becomes one hell of a pain in the ass over the course of So Wicked My Love, lacking all the charms of your typical pulpish female villain. I was not only glad to see her finally go but was also glad that the novel was ending, about fifty pages after it should have.

But as mentioned Bruno Fischer’s writing is so competent, professional, and inspired that I’m certain I’ll be reading more of his work – in particular The Lustful Ape, which he first published under his Russell Gray pseudonym for Lion Books in 1950 before reprinting it under his own name for Gold Medal in 1959.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Spider #9: Satan's Death Blast

The Spider #9: Satan's Death Blast, by Grant Stockbridge
June, 1934  Popular Publication

I’ve noticed these Spider novels take place in the month they were published, so in a neat trick Satan’s Death Blast occurs over a few days in June. Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page once again does his best to make this crazy tale seem like it’s happening in the real world, despite how fantastic it all is; there’s even a buried line in the narrative where hero Richard “The Spider” Wentworth intimates that such situations as those depicted in this novel are purposely kept out of the news! 

Anyway, Page also once again does his best to put the screws to his suffering hero. Within the first few pages Wentworth is shot in the left thigh (ie Steve Martin in Three Amigos: “I’ve been shot already!”), and he limps through the novel in a perpetual fevered daze. Not only that but loyal servant Ram Singh tries to stab him, and even Nita van Sloan “is false!” All told it’s a terrible few days in the life of Richard Wentworth, who this time is in upstate New York looking into a series of park purchases; he suspects something nefarious is behind it all.

But as usual this plot is lost in the scuffle of action and chase sequences, Wentworth again running all over the place without any time for pause or reflection. This particular novel isn’t as breathless as some of the previous ones I’ve read, but it’s certainly not slow-paced. But more focus is placed on scene-setting than in the earlier volumes, particularly “Hell,” a Stygian cavern this volume’s villain operates out of. Unfortunately the villain himself isn’t as interesting as previous ones, nor as fleshed out: Isong, the Devil, who wears a red cape and has a forked beard and the face of Satan himself. But he appears just a few short times in the novel; as ever, Wentworth himself is the star. 

And once again Wentworth rarely appears in his Spider guise. Only in the first pages is he wearing the “skirted mask” that has for the most part become the official Spider get-up in these early novels. But the costume is quickly dispensed with and Wentworth goes through the majority of the novel in one disguise or another, usually as a buck-toothed yokel named “Carson Haggard.” And as for his comrades, Ram Singh’s only around a few times, most notably when he tries to stab Wentworth while in a hypnotized state, and loyal Jackson duly performs every chore Wentworth asks of him without question. As for Nita, the poor girl appears in maybe two pages total. Her presence was greatly increased in the later volumes, and for the better.

Isong is apparently behind this consortium that’s buying park areas in upstate New York, and if the people or government won’t sell to him, he threatens to send them “up in dust.” This is the novel’s token phrase for blowing shit up real good; in one of the more memorable instances, a senator friend of Wentworth’s is blown up (as well as an entire city block) by an exploding cigar! Isong has some heavy-duty explosives, which he later uses to atomize parts of Albany so it can be looted, and eventually we learn that his explosives are made up of elements harvested from electric eels!

Things get pretty bonkers midway through as Wentworth, limping and feverish (he also later gets shot in the chest), finds himself in Hell. This is a very effective sequence, with Page playing up the horror elements, particularly the slimy electric eels swirling beneath the brackish lake in the midst of the cavern. Here Wentworth has his first face-to-face with the Devil, but in the course of his escape Wentworth suffers yet another setback: partial amnesia. This instigates a mid-novel section which has Wentworth wracking his brain trying to figure out where Hell is and what exactly it was he learned there (namely, that Albany was next on the attack list, but Wentworth doesn’t remember until too late).

One difference this time is the lack of female characters. As mentioned Nita is a nonentity, arriving late from New York and then apparently selling Wentworth out when next we see her, even taking a shot at the masked Spider as he confronts one of the men he suspects to be Isong. This sends Wentworth into a tither, as Nita even calls the cops on him. “Nita is false!” one chapter is titled, and this is Wentworth’s suspicion through the novel, basically writing her off and hating her guts. (In the end we learn she was merely trying to keep her cover, as she was fooling Isong’s men into thinking she was a turncoat.) But otherwise there are no other women, not even of the villainous sort; Page taunts us early on with an Italian beauty who is clearly being set up as such, but he apparently forgets about her.

The looting of Albany is another of those epic, apocalyptic sequences Page does so well, reminiscent of the major zombie attack in the previous volume. The big finale however plays out on that aviation angle Page and other pulp writers were so enamored with. Isong flies over New York, a captured Nita at his side, intending to bomb the city even though it has agreed to pay his ransom. A half-dead Wentworth relentlessly pushes cops and taxi drivers in his determination to get there in time. This all culminates in the goofy but effective image of Wentworth, on the ground, jousting with Isong’s plane and crippling it by throwing a sword into its propellor.

As for Isong the Devil, not only does he get one hell of an anticlimactic sendoff (Wentworth merely shoots him), his “surprise reveal” is the expected nonsense; he turns out to be some dude who appeared in like a single line of text early in the novel. In fact Page is pretty brazen about it this time, as this dude is like thrust into the novel early on for no reason at all – no reason, that is, other than for Page to “shock” us later that he was really the Devil all along. But part of me suspects that Page never intended this stuff to be taken seriously at all, and maybe all these unsurprising “surprise reveals” are just a big goof.

Anyway, another entertaining Spider novel, filled with the usual chaos and bloodless violence, but lacking the femme fatale element and a memorable villain. At the very least Satan’s Death Blast achieved the usual effect: it made me look forward to reading the next volume.

Monday, October 5, 2015


Trap, by George E. Jones
No month stated, 1955  Graphic Books

I think there’s a good possibility this Graphic Books paperback original might be a spoof of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books. Sort of like The Big Enchilada a few decades early. It’s all played on the level, just a hardboiled tale narrated by a cop hunting down a killer, but it features enough inversions of famous incidents from Spillane’s work that you have to wonder.

The first clue is our narrator, who basically comes off like Mike Hammer if he were a cop. His name is Steve Colt and he’s based in Hollywood, apparently on the Homicide beat. George E. Jones (no idea whether a real person or a house name; the book’s copyright Graphic) does us no favors with any setup material; in fact it took me about thirty pages to even be sure Colt was a cop. He comes off more like your stereotypical hardboiled private eye, taking what cases he wants, drinking all the time, gracing everyone with a perpetual sneer, and more concerned with pursuing his own vengeance than upholding the law.

Colt carries a .38 Special which he has named “Slim.” Somehow it not only has a safety but also can be loaded with a “clip.” But more importantly Colt is fond of, uh, fondling his gun, and even kisses it on the “nose” occasionally. When you factor in that Colt also spends the entire novel fending off the advances of a busty redheaded knockout, you have to ask yourself if there’s more to this guy’s story. Especially when the entire last quarter of the novel occurs in the “twilight world” of gays and drag queens, with Colt even “pinching the cheek” of a gay waiter who takes a shine to him.

Colt’s latest case has him investigating the murder of Jan Sherry, a hotstuff stripper whom Colt has known since she was just a kid, or something. She’s been shot point-blank by a .38 and a handful of witnesses saw a dark-haired woman entering her apartment building shortly before the shooting. Jones throws us straight into it with no setup of the characters Colt interrogates, among them Ronnie Champagne, the aforementioned redheaded knockout, who is not only Jan’s friend but a stripper herself, the two ladies working at the same club. Then there’s Cal Sherry, Jan’s brother, a two-bit actor who never got his big break, and finally there’s an older, married dude who was carrying on an affair with Jan.

From the get-go Ronnie’s practically begging Colt to spend the night with her, but he keeps fending her off. Why? Eventually he explains it to us that he suspects Ronnie – after all, a woman was spotted entering the building the night of Jan’s death – and thus he doesn’t want to get involved with her in case she’s the killer. And yet he has no qualms with sleeping on her couch one night! As I say, “hmmm.” Now Ronnie as expected is super hot and stacked, but strangely the word “breasts” is rarely used in the book. Instead Ronnie’s knockers are constantly referred to as “thirty-nines,” as in her bust size, which actually comes off as more pervy: “Her thirty-nines were practically in my face,” and etc.

Cal Sherry offers Colt five thousand bucks for the murder of whoever killed his sister, and Colt takes him up on the offer – yet another opening bit that made me keep wondering if this dude was a cop or what. And truth to tell Colt spends most of the novel bossing around his superior, Captain Buck Washburn, which made it all the more confusing. But eventually the autopsy reveals that Jan Sherry was doped up on heroin at the time of her death. Ronnie and Cal insist that Jan wasn’t a user, and Colt agrees; he figures she was forcibly doped. Gradually this leads him to the world of Willie Muscato, infamous drug kingpin of the LA area.

But in between fending off horny Ronnie (at one point Colt gets her all worked up and makes her think he’s about to do her, then tells her to scram because he has to get up early the next morning!), Colt also gets his ass kicked a whole bunch, usually from Muscato’s henchmen, in particular the awesomely-named Toenails Gennock. In fact, Toenails beats Colt to a pulp twice! Through it all Colt hardly ever whips out “Slim,” and his first kill is over halfway through the novel, as he attempts to escape Toenails and gang; he breaks some dude’s neck as they’re rolling down a cliff.

Colt also isn’t much in the Mike Hammer mold, or perhaps it’s another indication of the spoofish nature of it all, because he himself doesn’t even take out any of the main villains. When Toenails for example meets his expected fate, he’s taken out off-page by the villain of the piece – though Colt does get to shoot up an entire house of (apparently unarmed) transvestites in the final pages. As for Willie Muscato, Colt delivers him a savage beating that’s almost a prefigure of Gannon. I’m talking the dude’s entire nose smashed off his face and everything! It’s easily the most graphic sequence in the novel.

Jones builds up a genre-mandatory convoluted plot about Willie Muscato’s coke empire bankrolling some sort of white slavery racket, or something, with the strippers in Jan and Ronnie’s club being “forced into prostitution” and whatnot. Ronnie herself is not part of it, though Jones tries to make both the reader and Colt unsure if she’s really part of the plot or not. Though Colt never does give in to her, he assures us on the final page that he’s about to go give the now-cleared Ronnie a thorough screwing. Sure he is!

But as mentioned the last half of the book veers away from the white slavery angle and goes right for the gay stuff. Colt spends a lot of time “checking leads” at a gay bar, and in fact it’s here that he comes upon the revelation that the “woman” who was seen entering Jan’s apartment building was likely a man in drag. This gay bar stuff, by the way, really does come out of nowhere, and the word “queer” is repeated like a zillion times in the last thirty pages. There’s some funny stuff, though, like Colt watching a pair of drag queens calling each other “You sweet bitch, you.”

Colt’s also gotten wind of a “Tillie,” apparently the name of the mysterious woman who is shoehorning in on Willie Muscato’s cocaine empire and might also be the person who killed Jan. And “Tillie” does turn out to be a transvestite, with Colt and his cop pals descending on Tillie’s headquarters in the early morning hours and blowing everyone away. The final moment of the novel also seems to me a spoof or ripoff of the infamous finale of Mickey Spillane’s Vengeance Is Mine (“Juno was a man!”), as Colt blows away the man who poses as Tillie. And speaking of whom, practically any moron could’ve quickly figured out who this dude was.

Jones nails the hardboiled vibe, whether by accident, intent, or even mockery, with tough-guy threats from Colt like, “There’ll be nothing but blood and brains running down the gutter,” when vowing to find Jan’s killer, to goofy-but-great pulp lines like, “The negligee she was wearing was as thin as last week’s pay check.” The book also is a bit more hip than I’d expect a 1955 pulp novel to be, with rampant talk of marijuana (“tea”), heroin, and even mainlining coke.

All in all, Trap (the title doesn’t really make much sense, by the way, unless it refers to Jan’s plight with the forced prostitution bit), while not perfect, turned out to be exactly what I wanted: just a quick-reading slice of hardboiled pulp.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Black Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #56)

The Black Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes turns in his final installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster, which was incorrectly billed as the 50th installment on the cover of this first edition. Unfortunately this one is as padded and uneventful as Stokes’s earlier The Red Rays. This is a shame, as The Black Death has a lot of potential, what with its voodoo-themed plot and the promise of actual zombies. My guess is Stokes must’ve been bored with the series, or perhaps overworked from the other projects he was writing for producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and thus couldn’t be bothered to capitalize on the plot’s potential.

Carter narrates the tale for us; by this point first-person narration was standard for the series. We open with him already on the job, attending a voodoo ceremony in New York. By his side is the lovely Lyda Bonaventure, a Haitian lady with noble blood, or some such – Stokes wants us to understand that Lyda has “cafĂ© au lait” skin, and thus isn’t fully “black.” Indeed there’s a lot of “black” and “half-breed” stuff in here that would render the book unpublishable in today’s world; Lyda is the so-called “Black Swan,” leader of a revolutionary movement in Haiti, rising up against tyrant Papa Doc, and she refers to “the blacks” as if they’re her slaves.

Stokes had no problem with muddying up the plot unnecessarily, so long story short the Killmaster’s taking over this case from the CIA. Something about Lyda perhaps planning a big coup in Haiti, but the US wants to prevent another Bay of Pigs, and also there’s this captured scientist over there who is perhaps making missiles. The first half of the novel is basically comprised of Carter wondering why he was sent on this mission, if he’ll come back from it, etc, etc. One could almost read into it as Stokes himself complaining through his narrator about his latest writing assignment! But other than a brief action scene, as masked thugs attack the voodoo ceremony just as an orgy’s about to break out, the novel is listless for a good 80 or so pages of small print.

You know you’re in trouble when chapters and chapters are devoted to Carter helming Lyda’s boat and taking it into the Caribbean. It’s just all so padded and slow-going. Even the expected sexual shenanigans are downplayed, with Stokes only giving vague mention of Lyda’s bedroom prowess. More focus is spent on Carter’s distrust of her; he’s certain the lovely young lady has something in mind, and perhaps even intends to kill him so she can proceed with her revolution. But only she and Carter are on the boat, and Lyda herself is unable to pilot it. So Carter knows he’s at least safe until they make it to Haiti…which they eventually do. Stokes for one is in no hurry to get there.

Lyda has a large following, though Stokes doesn’t do much to play it up. Instead they are met in Haiti by the “black” contigent of her followers, none of whom Lyda fully trusts but who follow her without question. In charge of them is a big dude named Duppy, “the blackest man” Lyda has ever known. In one of those goofy coincidences this genre is known for, Carter realizes that Duppy is in fact a KGB agent named Diaz Ortega. How does Carter know this? Because he did his “homework,” studying all of the files at AXE headquarters in DC, and thus has seen photos of the man! But Carter himself is posing as someone else, in this case an arms supplier who is working for Lyda.

Gradually Stokes begins to pulp things up. We learn that Papa Doc has a veritable Howard Hughes at his disposal, a reclusive American billionaire who has started up his own SS in Haiti. The man’s name is Paul Penton (“P.P.”) Trevelyn, and he lives in The Citadel, an ancient fortress that is surrounded by his sadistic private army of blackshirts. This is where Dr. Martinez, a college professor supposedly abducted by Papa Doc’s men and smuggled into Haiti to make missiles, is perhaps being held. But here too there’s more to the story, as not only was Martinez an old flame of Lyda’s but Carter is certain the Ivory Tower commie symp has willingly gone to work for Papa Doc.

Even more pulpish – the natives have it that the Citadel is patrolled by zombies. Actual, real-life zombies, of the White Zombie mold, shambling forms with milk-white eyes. Carter sneers that anyone would actually believe such nonsense, but starts to wonder himself as he witnesses another strange voodoo ceremony, Lyda’s followers performing a hexing ritual on ol’ P.P. Trevelyn. But to cancel all expectations posthaste, when Carter finally runs into a “zombie” face-to-face, we discover it’s all along the lines of Scooby-Doo; they’re just regular men wearing opaque contact lenses. All of it just a ruse of Trevelyn’s to sow fear in the hearts of the superstitious natives.

That being said, there is a goofy part where Carter, having infiltrated the Citadel, poses as one of the zombies! It doesn’t go on very long, but it does have a memorable bit where he stumbles along zombie-style, arm outstretched, in the hopes of fooling one of Trevelyn’s blackshirts.

Speaking of Carter, in Stokes’s hands the dude was a bit of an ass. Overly bossy, overly suspicious, Manning Lee Stokes’s version of Nick Carter isn’t really a character the reader can root for. He also has a sadistic streak, like killing people even when he promises them to their face that he won’t. Most unsettling in The Black Death is a part where Carter simply blows away a naked and unarmed young woman. He just flat-out kills her! Of course we’re later informed that she too was a KGB agent, indeed one who usually worked with Diaz “Duppy” Ortega (Carter knows this too thanks to that convenient damn “homework” he did), and also Carter kills her just to shock P.P. Trevelyn into talking, but still…it’s pretty damn cold, and not something you’d expect from a heroic action series protagonist.

Once Carter gets in Haiti things mercifully pick up, but nowhere along the lines of the almighty The Sea Trap or even Stokes’s own earlier installment The Golden Serpent. It’s mostly just scenes of Carter trying to sneak into the Citadel and find Martinez, all while keeping Duppy/Ortega from figuring out who he is. There isn’t much action, and there’s no part where Carter himself is captured or tortured, as per the series mandate. There is a bit of a lurid factor when we learn that Trevelyn films pornos in the Citadel; this is where Carter stumbles upon the aforementioned naked gal, as she’s “filming a scene” with a black stud while Trevelyn leers from behind the camera.

But this too is muddied up, as Stokes is more concerned with the murky world of global espionage than any sordid highjinks. The final pages see one bizarre reveal after another, none of them having much of an impact, like the revelation that Dr. Martinez died long ago and the one here in the Citadel is an imposter – plus there’s another fake Dr. Matinez. Then there’s also some stuff about real missiles being made in the Citadel, the ones being manufactured topside being nothing more than dummies there to fool people into thinking Papa Doc’s activities in this area have been futile.

The “Killmaster” only lives up to his title sporadically, usually just shooting people in cold blood. There isn’t even a big finale with Trevelyn’s zombie forces descending en masse; once Carter uncovers their true nature they basically disappear from the narrative. Instead Lyda and her forces take on Treveyln’s blackshirts and the Haitian army in the background while Carter runs around in the Citadel. The finale continues with this theme, featuring an overlong sequence in which Carter and Duppy/Ortega engage in a bit of cat-and-mouse before Carter finally takes him out.

From here it’s on to another overlong bit where Carter and Lyda escape on their boat as the Haitian navy moves in on them. Stokes must’ve done some time in the Navy himself, as he peppers all of this stuff with nautical terms and procedures, but then again it could all just be leftover research from his gig writing The Aquanauts. Carter ends the tale assuring us that he and Lyda are about to get to screwin’ again (she has this bit where she wears nothing but white garters and stockings for Carter, offsetting the color of her skin…nice!!), and that was that so far as Manning Lee Stokes’s writing duties went for the Killmaster series.