Monday, November 30, 2015

The Bamboo Bomb (Mark Hood #2)

The Bamboo Bomb, by James Dark
October, 1965  Signet Books

Mark Hood returns for his second adventure, which takes him from Singapore to New Guinea. We join him as he’s already on his mission; it isn’t until nearly halfway through the book that we are informed why he’s been sent to South Asia. Someone in Indonesia supposedly has an atomic bomb, and Intertrust, the agency which employs Hood and is made up of “the four nuclear powers,” wants Hood to find out if the rumor is true.

The Bamboo Bomb moves a lot more quickly than the first volume. Whereas that installment took its time building to an anticlimactic ending, this one moves at a fast pace, hopscotching from one new character and situation to the next. At a snappy 121 pages of small print, the book almost comes off like a series of short stories, as Hood progresses from point A to B to C and etc, with little pause or reflection. That being said the series overall has still not attained the quasi sci-fi vibe of later installments; I’m looking forward to those.

Hood’s cover is that he doesn’t have one; he goes around the globe on Intertrust missions casually giving out his real name. He’s a world-famous cricket player(!) and race car driver, so he plays up the image of a wealthy playboy-athlete. The Bamboo Bomb opens with Hood doing a replay of his “undercover” work from the previous novel: acting like he’s low on cash due to maintaining a lifestyle beyond his means. So now he waltzes around Singapore, acting brash and drunkenly, trying to catch the interests of whatever shady faction is behind this supposed atomic bomb. This bit includes the goofy scene of Hood ordering an extravagant meal and then asking his date, a lovely English lady, if she has any money!

Hood’s “grifter playboy” act succeeds once again, and soon he’s approached by a slim Asian beauty named Telok Li-Chen. Telok (an awesome name) says she’s looking for a strong man, and soon enough Hood’s meeting with her employer, an underworld bigwig named Mr. Tang, who operates out of an opium den. To prove himself Hood must fight two men to the death; he busts out his karate skills in a fight more brutal than any in Come Die With Me. He kills one and renders the other unconscious, and thus passes the test. Meanwhile he tries to put the moves on Telok, which he figures would be like “mating with a snake,” and she seems interested – but Tang says business first.

Next Hood’s on a boat headed across the Strait of Malacca to Sumatra. The two goons on the boat idiotically open fire on a passing British patrol boat. Hood jumps ship, is hauled onto the British boat, and gives the young skipper a bullshit story about being kidnapped. Here we are reminded that Hood was an exec on a Navy destroyer in Korea. He knocks out the skipper and takes control of the boat, which seems pretty hard to buy, but what the hell, it’s late at night and most of the crew is below decks, asleep. But Hood’s discovered once he takes the boat toward the Sumatran shore, and when he jumps overboard he’s shot in the side.

He comes to in a hospital in Sumatra, and due to his own medical background (Hood is if anything one idealized character – the dude has experience in everything) he knows he’s been shot in an otherwise inconsequential section of the intestines(!). He recuperates for a week, after which he’s flown to Indonesia by Tang’s associates; there he meets Ramsuddin, Indonesia’s Minister of Reconstruction and Development (even harder to buy, Hood is familiar with the dude, as his picture is always in the paper…?!). Rasmuddin puts Hood up in palatial quarters, telling him he needs to recover fully and strengthen himself for his mission.

Rasmuddin wants Hood to venture into the jungles of Borneo and assassinate a Malay oil magnate named Tam Chou. Given how arduous this will be, Hood toughens himself up with calisthenics and hardcore karate practice. Meanwhile he gets rubdowns from Rasmuddin’s personal masseuse/mistress, a hotstuff Balinese beauty named Alor. Hood thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He even beats up Rasmuddin’s top security goon Subandu for trying to take advantage of her.

The Borneo stuff is yet another in the endless tide of mini-plots; after almost being set up by a wrathful Subandu, Hood makes his rigorous way through the jungle to get to his target. Instead of killing Tam Chou Hood tells him that he’s a secret agent, working against Rasmuddin, and the Malaysian agrees to disappear for a few weeks, to fool Rasmuddin into believing that he’s dead. Hood goes back to Indonesia, a hero now; Rasmuddin even gives Hood pretty young Alor for a night of (off-page) lovin’.

Hood finally gets at his overall objective: Rasmuddin claims to have an atomic bomb, and it’s on Krakotoa Island, which the Minister is currently evacuating. In fact, Rasmuddin wants Hood to go see the bomb and then write about it, so the whole world will know for sure that Indonesia has the A Bomb. Turns out they really don’t, though; when graced with a nighttime visit to Krakatoa, Hood sees a bunch of crates filled with TNT lying around, and Rasmuddin points out some uranium being transported to the site. Hood quickly deduces the Minister’s plan: he’s going to blow up all this TNT, which will disperse the small amount of uranium, and that coupled with Hood’s own article will be enough to convince the world that Indonesia has an atom bomb.

Our hero has about as much finesse as Sean Connery’s version of Bond; he knocks out a few guards, throws some TNT down a cliff, and then runs like hell while everything explodes. He commandeers yet another craft and escapes, injured in the process and almost hallucinating by the next morning, adrift on the ocean. Then a boat filled with Tang’s men chases after him and Chiao, Tang’s massive henchman, a “professor” of kung-fu, boards the boat. Hood knows that despite his expertise with karate he’d be no match for Chiao, so he whips out his gun and shoots the dude a bunch of times! 

And that’s that; Hood is rescued by the same British skipper he kidnapped earlier in the tale, and he figures in all the action Rasmuddin probably died(!). So once again we have sort of an anticlimax, I mean all the characters from early in the book are just forgotten. Hood never goes back to take care of Tang or to even act on Telok’s open offer for sex; rather, the novel comes to a quick close, James Dark once again hitting his word count and saying to hell with it. But the guy’s such a skillfull pulp writer that you can’t complain; I really enjoyed the book.

Come Die With Me ended with Hood losing the lady he had fallen in love with, killed by a nuclear missile strike Hood himself had caused. Dark implied that this would change Hood, make him colder, and that seems to play out in The Bamboo Bomb, though very subtly. For example, early in the book Telok caresses Hood’s hand, and Dark writes that “Hood felt nothing.” At any rate we learn a little more about Mark Hood this time: for one, his age is given as 32 (I know a future volume says he’s 36, so it looks like he ages as the series progresses), and he was an exec on a Destroyer in Korea, after which he served in Navy Intelligence for a few years.

James Dark (aka J.E. MacDonnell) displays his usual cultural sensitivities throughout: “[Hood] judged him to be Malay, but he might have been Indonesian or Filipino, they all looked the same.” And Murimoto, Hood’s karate instructor (unseen this volume), is again referred to as “the Jap.” Also many mentions of the “little brown men” Hood towers over as he gallivants around South Asia. But Dark keeps the story moving, with less of the padding or stalling of the previous book, doling out his pulpy tale with panache.

Humorously enough, Signet appears to have confused the (ghost)writer with the protagonist: the back of the book proclaims James Dark as the “hero spy” of the previous novel.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Aquanauts #3: Seek, Strike And Destroy

The Aquanauts #3: Seek, Strike And Destroy, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1971  Macfadden Books

Manning Lee Stokes turns in his third installment of The Aquanauts , and for the most part it’s as slow-moving as his first. Boy can this guy pad out the pages, and Seek, Strike And Destroy features padding of the worst sort. You know you’re in trouble when the first chapter is given over to an endless sequence featuring a newlywed couple on their honeymoon – a couple who only appears in this opening chapter – complete with long digressions on their history together and plans for the future and etc.

They stop off for some quickie sex in a ghost town near Death Valley, Las Veagas, only for a friggin’ missile to land nearby. It doesn’t explode, lodges there in the ground, and it has Chinese writing on it. Gradually we’ll learn that this is a nuclear missile, fired from a Chinese nuclear submarine, built identically to the top-secret US Polaris sub. The Chinese sub, off the California coast, is quickly sunk (off page) and now it’s up to Admiral Coffin of the Secret Underater Service to make sure the Chinese do not discover that their nuclear sub has been sunk but also to ensure that the US public doesn’t find out a Chinese sub was right off the US coast. Also he’s to destroy whatever other Chinese nuclear subs might exist. 

Meanwhile our hero Tiger Shark is testing out the Paranauts initiative, aka Operation Deep Six, a page-filling gambit on Stokes’s part if ever there was one: another idea of Coffin’s, the “Paranauts” concept is basically parachuting a geared-up scuba diver into the sea. Why exactly this would even require a service name, or what in particular the Paranauts would do that the regular Tiger Sharks couldn’t do, is something Stokes doesn’t explain. What makes it all even more unintentionally humorous is that the Paranauts thing is just brushed under the narrative carpet and not mentioned again. And it’s not even the most action-themed entrance for our hero, if that was Stokes’s intention: all Tiger does is parachute into the ocean and swim around.

Stokes retains his usual glacial pace; it takes fifty small-print pages for Tiger to even get in his high-tech, top secret KRAB submersile and go look for the downed Chinese sub. Meanwhile we must endure so much tedium. Every few chapters breaks over, as has become customary for the series, to Admiral Coffin and his superior dressing in “mufti” and meeting secretly in motels to discuss top-secret stuff. But rather than being gripping or even revelatory, these scenes are slow as molasses, with Stokes detailing every lighting of a pipe or sipping of gin, the two old men going on and on and on about what have you, and usually it’s shit we already know!

It occurred to me that Stokes could’ve made some money on the side by offering a correspondence course on pulp paperback writing. “This month’s lesson – Padding: How to Meet (And Exceed!) Your Word Count.” I’ve said before that I do appreciate Stokes’s style, but there are times where you wish he’d put down the bottle of booze and think up a quality story instead of just banging aimlessly at the typewriter. But as it is, so much time is wasted on inconsequential things and dialog exchanges that go nowhere. And again Tiger himself (“Tiger” being the main way Stokes refers to his hero, whose real name is William Martin) is lost in the narrative quagmire.

But then, as is typical of Stokes, there will be these bizarre incidents that come out of nowhere, jolting the reader out of his stupor…like when Tiger has to knock out a sexy Communist agent by screwing her with a narcotic-laced French Tickler!! The lady is Madame Hee, but despite the name she’s actually Russian; in long backstory we learn that she was born in Russia around 1910 or thereabouts and married a Chinese officer or some such in the ‘20s. Now she lives in San Francisco and acts as the prime gatherer of spy intel for Peking; Admiral Coffin and the Feds are concerned she’ll somehow get wind of the sunk Chinese sub and let her superiors know.

And yes, Madame Hee was born around 1910, meaning she’s “pushing 60,” give or take a few years. Yet, the Feds ensure Coffin and Captain Greene (Tiger’s main contact in the SUS), Madame Hee doesn’t look a day over 40, with most men thinking she doesn’t look over 30. And she’s got a helluva nice body, “a body they could use in the Playboy centerfold.” Plus she’s a nympho who is only “interested in big cocks and staying power.” The sexually-aggressive older lady with the looks and body of a much younger woman is a recurring theme in Stokes’s work; see Gerda von Rothe in The Golden Serpent and Queen Beatta in The Bronze Axe. And like Gerda von Rothe, Madame Hee’s even a wealthy owner of a cosmetics emporium.

In one of the novel’s few intentionally-funny moments (Stokes as usual playing things straight…a little too straight), Greene insists that Tiger not be told how old Madame Hee really is; there follows a few humorous bits where a CIA agent almost slips and mentions that Hee is 60 or so. Anyway Tiger poses as a sort of country bumpkin, which we’re informed at great length is Madame Hee’s type, and saves her from a staged mugging in a park. She takes him back to her place to patch him up and the lurid hijinks ensue. First she gives him a blowjob straightaway, which nearly blows Tiger’s mind. Then she orgasms after a little dry humping(?).

Then it’s out with the ol’ French Tickler, which Stokes only now bothers to inform us is the entire key to this whole sordid puzzle; the SUS brains have coated it with a diluted extract of Puffer Fish poison(?!), and all Tiger has to do is fuck the lady with it and within fifteen minutes or so she’ll be out cold. And I should mention that Stokes gets fairly explicit here, more so than he did just a few years before in the aforementioned Golden Serpent. This is also the first sex scene in the book, nearly 100 pages in – and also, believe it or not, it’s not until here that we have our first action scene, as a muscle-bound hulk comes into Hee’s place while Tiger is searching it.

A knock-down, drag-out fight ensues, one in which Tiger is practically beaten to a pulp. He endures a beating that would faze even Gannon, yet manages to finally overcome his opponent, fracturing his skull with Hee’s telephone. But by next chapter Tiger’s good as new, about to parachute into the China sea, where KRAB waits for him in the waters below. It’s like a week later and Tiger’s been in the hospital.  Admiral Coffin has gotten in touch with some revolutionairies in China who know where the nuclear submarine pens are. Tiger’s mission now is to meet up with a member of the revolutionairies and destroy the subs.

The underwater stuff you’d expect of the series is underplayed, with only a few brief scenes of Tiger either “finning” around the sea in his high-tech scuba outfit (we learn here that he wears a self-contained helmet on his dives, by the way) or hanging out in KRAB while wearing nothing but shorts and a pair of moccasins (Tiger’s preferred KRAB attire, for some reason). He’s got time to kill before meeting with the revolutionaries (because, of course, Stokes himself has many words to kill before he meets his requirement), so he goofs off; here Stokes inserts a bit of his trademark in-jokery:

[Tiger] read a paperback until he could no longer keep his eyes open. As his jaw slackened and his head nodded he wondered where in hell the writers got their ideas. Some of them, the writers themselves, must be pretty weirdo.

More jokery ensues when Tiger swims onshore to meet his contact and has to hide in a rice paddy, fertilized with human shit, as a guard patrol walks by. One of them even takes a piss right over where Tiger is submerged in the foul murk, unseen by them. But who will be surprised when Tiger’s contact turns out to be a young and pretty Chinese woman? Her name is Mary Liu and she meets Tiger in an effectively-rendered scene in the abandoned “Temple of Dogs” which overlooks the sea.

Mary has been carrying on an affair with the General in charge of the nearby submarine complex and has gathered enough info on him and the complex to help Tiger destroy it. Much, much time is wasted on the General’s entrance and Tiger’s subterfuge, pretending he is a Russian here to buy nuclear subs from the Chinese. Finally Tiger kills the dude, and here the novel gets weird again. Stokes, perhaps having watched an episode or two of Mission: Impossible, now has Tiger pull out a latex mask fashioned after the dead General’s features and put it on, along with the General’s uniform. 

Pretending to be drunk, as was the dead General’s wont, he heads to the General’s house in the nearby sub complex, which is built into a hollowed-out volcano over the sea, Mary along with him. But when a jealous Colonel who has long sought to usurp the General comes in on them, Tiger and Mary pretend to have sex on the bed (while still clothed) while the Colonel watches them(?!), until Tiger finally rolls over and blows him away with the lady’s .25 caliber. What is there left to do but drag the bloody corpse into the shower and then have sex all day?

Stokes skips the details but he does decide, for no reason other than general sadism, to gut us readers: Mary, who Tiger finds himself falling for, has come on this mission knowing it’s suicide for her. Tiger will be escaping by the sea once he destroys the subs and he only has air tanks for himself. Mary has taken the job knowing she will die with its success. Tiger spends all day wondering how he can get her out safely, even if it isn’t part of his orders. He finally gets Mary to agree to go with him – only for her to then reveal she’s taken her suicide “L-pill.” She dies in his arms, telling him it was the right thing to do.

Tiger is devastated – but only for a sentence or two. Humorously, Mary is plain forgotten by the next chapter, which has Tiger in scuba suit and helmet sneaking around the sub complex and knifing Chinese guards. Then it’s into the drink to swim around and plant explosives on the fifteen nuclear subs in the pen. Ten pages remain in this seemingly-endless novel (which is actually only 192 pages long – but with the usual super-small print), and only now are things truly happening. But that’s Manning Lee Stokes for you. Four pages from the end we’re graced with the incident depicted on the cover: Red China frogmen in white wetsuits attack Tiger. He takes them out in a few paragraphs.

It’s funny how Stokes charges through the finale, realizing he’s about to hit his word count. The frogmen disposed of, Tiger plants his bombs and swims for KRAB. He just makes it in time for the explosion, which rockets the little sub out of the ocean. Turns out there must’ve been some live atomic warheads on one of the ships Tiger just blew, and an atomic cloud rises in the distance. But there’s only a sentence or two left so Tiger sits back in one of the KRAB’s “contoured seats” and that’s that. So then, all the good stuff was rushed through in about ten or so pages. If Stokes had spent more time on that than inessential bullshit, Seek, Strike And Destroy would’ve been a lot of fun. 

But that’s Manning Lee Stokes for you.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Steel Lightning (Steel Lightning #2)

Steel Lightning, by Kevin Sherrill
September, 1991  Pinnacle/Zebra Books

One of the more obscure men’s adventure series continues with Steel Lightning, the second installment of an un-named, un-numbered series that began with Midnight Lightning. I’ve decided to call this series “Steel Lightning”, given that the third and final volume retains this name, but for what it’s worth the series protagonists refer to themselves as “Street Machine.” 

Whatever the name, Steel Lightning was a chore to get through. At 302 pages of smallish print, each and every page packed with dense blocks of paragraphs, it was an uphill struggle. Once again Kevin Sherrill, apparently a real person, crushes forward momentum with constant backpedalling, inconsequential digressions, repetitive situations, and, this time at least, lots and lots of racist invective. A book like this would cause the mollycoddled college students of today to walk out in protest and their spineless president to resign. It’s hardcore stuff, but honestly just as goofily over-the-top as the sort of shit David Alexander wrote in Swastika.

It comes courtesy the villains of the installment, a group of neo-Nazis operating out of Alphabet City, one of the (then) more dangerous sections of New York. (An irony about this series is how it’s predicated on the rampant and growing crime rate in New York, whereas in real life the ‘90s saw such a dropoff in crime that New York is now considered one of the safest places in the country to live. Wait, maybe that was thanks to the efforts of the Street Machine!) The neo-Nazi scum leader is Niles “Psycho” Dorfman, and he himself reports to a mysterious, never-named bigwig who calls all the shots. Sherrill keeps the bigwig’s identity secret for a “surprise” reveal you can see coming miles away, but meanwhile the back cover copy blows the entire secret, anyway – it’s really a politician who is campaigning for mayor named Rolf Deverak.

Psycho’s crew is the same who caused Street Machine member Moses White so much grief in the first volume, shooting him and leaving him for dead. Moses’s vengeance was left unquenched by the end of that first volume, and I see now why: Sherrill likely planned to center each installment around a specific team member’s revenge. The first volume (gradually) got around to the vengeance of Brian Benson, who had been burned to a crisp by a trio of sadistic bikers. All that was six or so months ago, and when we meet them this time around the Street Machine is busy taking care of business, taking out a crack manufacturing plant in New York.

Speaking of David Alexander, Sherrill again comes off very similarly to the guy, to the point where I again wonder if Sherrill and Alexander were one and the same. But if so, this is a toned down Alexander, for Sherrill only delivers a handful of action scenes. When he does, though, he goes full-blast, with plentiful chaos and gore, and he also shows a penchant for the goofy alliteration Alexander specializes in. And yet for all that, so much of this book is comprised of boring chaff that I figure there’s no way it could be Alexander; 90% of this fat book is a flat-out bore, where hardly anything happens other than constant and repetitive declarations of bad-assed intent from the various members of Street Machine.

Also, Sherrill does himself no favors by, once again, referring to his sundry characters by a variety of names in the narrative. God, this is confusing as hell. Psycho is referred to as “Psycho,” “Niles,” and “Dorfman” before we are finally clued that Sherrill’s only referring to a single character. Likewise the Street Machine heroes are arbitrarily referred to in the narrative by either their first names, last names, or nicknames. Team leader John Dinatale is probably the worst recipient of this confusing mish-mash of narrative naming, sometimes “Dinatale,” sometimes “John,” sometimes even “J.D.” 

Anyway, this opening action scene is appropriately chaotic, but not only is it over way too soon but it’s also one of the very few action scenes in the novel. The Street Machine members hop in their armored Ford panel truck (which Sherrill refers to as “the war wagon,” lifting the concept from Don Pendleton) and escape the cops who are finally rushing onto the scene. Dinatale’s concern that his team will one day be captured by the police is almost realized in Steel Lightning, particularly thanks to an old enemy of Dinatale’s on the force, who has been given orders to find out who is behind this group of guerrilla vigilantes and to bring them all in.

From here the novel stalls for about two hundred or so pages. I thought the previous volume was slow-going, what with the tedious amount of time devoted to the various backstories of each character, as well as the forming of the team, followed by their endless training by Dinatale…I mean you’d think with all of that taken care of, Sherrill could get with the action and gore and have the Street Machine busting heads all over NYC. But no. Steel Lightning is even slower-going than its predecessor, comrpised mainly of the main characters sitting around and flashing back to this or that event, while re-affirming their intent to sow vengeance, the law be damned.

I should give Sherrill the benefit of the doubt, though. My assumption is some editor at Pinnacle/Zebra told him to “elongate” his manuscript (to quote the still-hilarious “Carsenio” skit from SNL). At this point Zebra owned the Pinnacle imprint and Zebra was known for men’s adventure books that were well beyond the page length of the genre norm. Maybe Sherrill’s manuscript suffered from this. Where Steel Lightning should blast full-tilt from first page to last, it instead just treads water, mimicking the first volume in how it’s so listless throughout until finally cutting loose in the very last pages.

There are a few highlights. For one Dinatale’s team gets in an endless chase with the cops, who spot them heading onto the job in their armored Ford truck. While it should be exciting, this sequence just keeps going on and on and on, with Dinatale steering the trusty old Ford through the back alleys of Manhattan until he successfully loses the tail. Then there’s a gruesome, over-the-top sequence, again reminiscent of the work of David Alexander, where Psycho and his Nazis massacre a bunch of people in Chinatown, making it look like a hate crime perpetrated by blacks (they even wear blackface as part of the ruse…!). Sherrill even devotes an entire paragraph to the paths of various bullets as they slam through a pretty young Chinese woman.

Speaking of women, Psycho’s crew has some veritable neo-Nazi She Devils in it, though they’re nothing like their pulpier forebears in the old men's mags. These ones are scurvy, gross harlots with likely poor hygeine; one of them, Heidi, has the pulpy aspect of a swastika tattooed between her breasts, with an SS tattooed on each nipple, but she’s such a nonentity of a character you barely notice her. She, like the other few girls, devotes slavish attention to Psycho, usually reprimanded, beaten, and raped by him for the most minor of infractions. However it must be said that Dinatale, toward the finale, apparently rapes Heidi to death in order to get some desired info out of her. 

Sherrill is at pains to make John Dinatale seem more unhinged and sadistic than the worst “slags” in all of New York (“slags” by the way being a word repeated about a billion times in the novel). Raping a neo-Nazi chick to death (off-page or not) is just one indication of this; hell, Dinatale’s live-in girlfriend is specifically stated as being a teenager. And she brings over another teenager, also a former hooker, and Dinatale bangs ‘em both at the same time. (This too happens off-page; in fact all the sex happens off-page in this volume.) Throughout the novel Dinatale keeps swearing bloody vengeance, and when the shit hits the fan in the final pages he murders neo-Nazis whether they be male or female, armed or unarmed. Some hero.

Meanwhile Barbara Cohen, the Smurfette of the group, is growing feelings for Dinatale, wondering if he’s going to be the stud who gets her off the lesbian bandwagon she jumped on after being raped and tortured in the previous volume. Barbara as we’ll recall is a former porno actress turned model turned rape victim turned District Attorney’s assistant(!!), and she’s getting a case of hot pants for Mr. Dinatale. But this subplot, as interesting as it is, is just another that Sherrill stretches to the breaking point throughout the novel, with nothing resolved by story’s end. By the finale of Steel Lightning Barbara has basically decided that she’s going to tell her girlfriend to take a hike so she can bang Dinatale.  Or will she?

Sadly, this soap operatic bullshit is more interesting than the meat of the tale. As stated, for the most part Steel Lightning is just endless scenes of the various members of the Street Machine stating their vow to fight crime, regardless the cost, while abritrarily cutting over to Psyscho or Deverak spouting racist vitriol. When things do promise to happen – like Moses’s wife accosted by Psycho and gang – it instead leads to a heated argument within the Street Machine, Moses wanting vengeance asap and Dinatale telling him he’ll get vengeance when Dinatale say’s he’ll get vengeance.

Why they don’t barge down Psycho’s doors and blast him and his goons away is obvious: Sherrill has several thousand more words to go before he meets his requirement. Instead it’s back to the stalling and delaying; finally Dinatale orders the troops in when Moses’s wife is abducted. After a gory fight in a neo-Nazi bar, Dinatale corners Heidi, swearing he’ll get the info out of her while screwing her…to death. Next chapter and Dinatale knows where Moses’s wife is being held, and he also intimates that Heidi is in fact dead, so good gravy who knows what happened there. More importantly, the insanity promised by the cover is finally about to be unleashed.

The gun-porn also returns with copious descriptions of the various firearms the team uses. The big, long-awaited action scene sees the Street Machine assaulting Psycho’s headquarters in Alphabet City, machine guns blazing. However there are more neo-Nazis here than expected, so the team is quickly outnumbered. Barbara and WWII vet Joseph Vernick are both shot, though protected by the “Kevlar underwear” Dinatale insists the team members wear. Moses, himself injured, manages to free his wife, but wouldn’t you guess it – Psycho escapes.

Humorously, having gone most of the novel without any action, we are graced with another action scene immediately after this one; Dinatale finds out where Deverak has his secret neo-Nazi meetings, and he and the team grab a bunch of frag grenades and head there. They blast away yet more Nazi scum, and Psycho and Deverak are shot about fifty times each in the melee. It’s at least a memorable finale, but good grief did it take forever to get there.

Steel Lightning could’ve been a rollercoaster of a ride, but it’s just a boring digression. Let’s hope the next volume, which was to be the last, improves things.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nick Carter: Killmaster #215: The Samurai Kill

Nick Carter: Killmaster #215: The Samurai Kill, by Nick Carter
July, 1986  Charter Books

I bought this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster fresh off the racks of a Waldenbooks store in the summer of 1986; I was 11 at the time and I was in the grip of Bondmania. I was in the process of reading the Ian Fleming 007 novels and had read all of the then-new “continuation” 007 novels by John Gardner (and I’m unashamed to admit that I actually preferred the Gardner books as a kid!), so I was on the lookout for more spy action. Also, the cover likely drew my interest due to the presence of ninjas.

I’m sure I started The Samurai Kill, but I know I never finished it. I think I put it aside because the opening sequence was too strange for me at the time, and also likely I was overwhelmed by the fact that this was volume 215 of a series; would I be totally out of my depth having missed the preceding 214 volumes?  (Likely one of the reasons Jove Books later decided to make the volume number a lot less prominent on the cover.)  Little did I know at the time how free-flowing this series was, with an army of ghostwriters turning out adventures with hardly any sense of continuity. Also, reading the book now, the weird opening is right up my alley. In short, The Samurai Kill is firmly in the far-out realm of the Killmaster universe, very much along the lines of the later Deep Sea Death, complete with mutant seaweed, underwater cities, and high-tech underwater gear that could come right out of The Aquanauts.

Apparently this one was written by Dennis Lynds, a veteran writer more known by his Michael Collins pseudonym (under which he wrote about detective Dan Fortune). He delivered several Killmaster novels, starting in the ‘70s, and if this one is any indication he would’ve been right at home in the early years of the series, when Lyle Kenyon Engel was producing. Lynds has the same writing style as those early Engel ghostwriters and isn’t afraid to get way out there while still making it all seem realistic (to a point). There’s also a definite sense of fun, which is to say there’s none of that dour, overly “serious” vibe you get from series ghostwriters like Jack Canon (ie Blood Raid). 

One difference between this and the series installments from two decades before is a heavier focus on action, as demanded by ‘80s men’s adventure pulp. In fact The Samurai Kill opens with action, as Carter and his latest bedmate, sexy Australian secret agent Siobhan O’Neill, are attacked while scuba diving near Kwajalein, an atoll deep in the Pacific. Speaking of Siobhan, an interesting note is that she’s never described! This is the first time I can think of where a Killmaster author never once tells us what the main female character looks like – no details on her hair color, eyes, anything. We are of course informed she’s got a great rack, but hell, that’s a given. Anyway the great cover painting by George Gross will have to suffice.

Carter and Siobhan are attacked out of nowhere by a squad of frogmen in black wetsuits, frogmen who aren’t wearing air tanks. A pitched underwater battle ensues; luckily Carter and Siobhan brought along their spearguns. It’s like the finale of Thunderball in miniature and a precursor to the vast amount of underwater action in The Samurai Kill; Carter spends most of the novel in diving gear, swimming around the Pacific, getting in various battles. This isn’t a complaint, as I’ve always been interested in scuba stuff, especially when it’s combined with spy hijinks…likely from watching Thunderball (which is probably another reason I bought this book as a kid, as I’d recently seen that film for the first time and wanted more of the same).

These weird scuba dudes have come from a high-tech submersible that doesn’t look like anything Carter or Siobhan have seen before. It gets even more sci-fi when a gravity field expands from the ship, pulling the attackers back inside, and Carter and Siobhan along with it. They can’t escape and their air tanks are running out. This is a tense scene in which Siobhan saves the day, realizing it’s the metallic tanks that are pulling caught in the gravity field. She and Carter escape and find themselves on a desolate atoll, where they of course have sex all night. Speaking of which, Lynds is more so in the lyrical mode when it comes to the purple prose; Carter and Siobhan screw a whole bunch, but rarely if ever do we get any of the naughty details.

Carter’s here near the Marshall Islands because there have been sightings of underwater flying objects and many locals have gone missing. In addition to the frogmen and their strange craft, Carter next discovers a rampant outbreak of vegetation taking over the coves, mutant seaweed that grows phenomenally fast. Even worse, it’s poisonous, instantly killing anything that touches it. Carter and Siobhan are certain this stuff is connected to the strange frogmen and their underwater craft. Speaking of which, those frogmen are what’s depicted on the cover; turns out they aren’t ninjas, after all. That’s just how their scuba outfits look. In fact there aren’t any ninjas in The Samurai Kill; the 11 year-old me would’ve been bummed!

The seaweed grows more rampant, killing natives and even destroying a nearby Soviet spyship. Carter and Siobhan, who turns out to be like a female version of the Killmaster, venture around the various islands, researching clues, getting in frequent battles with more wetsuited goons, and of course having sex. There’s another long action sequence, this time featuring Carter going up against the mysterious frogmen alone, which takes place on a golf course. This frogmen army turns out to be comprised of both men and women, from various countries, but Japan keeps turning up in the investigation; eventually Carter determines that the mutant seaweed is the product of a chemical research factory outside of Tokyo. 

The focus on action really picks up the middle half, which is otherwise bogged down in too much dialog and redundancy; Carter keeps getting off on one-upping the stolid commander of the US base in Kwajalein, as does Siobhan. But before they leave for Tokyo Carter and Siobhan are again attacked by an assault team of frogmen, which leads to a pitched battle on the army base. Then Carter’s plane explodes on the flight to Tokyo, but he’s able to bail out, just like in the old G.I. Joe cartoon. Siobhan survives too, however we get lots of worry from Carter’s perspective when he thinks the woman he was “just inside of” a few hours before might be dead(!).

Carter and Siobhan’s Tokyo investigation eventually leads them to a research center off the coast where the mutant seaweed was created, but thought to be destroyed. When going to interview the widow of the seaweed’s creator, the two are attacked by samurai. This finally is the introduction of the main villain: Fujiwara, last descendant of the ancient ruling power of feudal Japan, who not only wants to rule the country again but also wants to wipe out humanity and start over again. He plans to infect the world’s oceans with the seaweed, causing the gradual death of everyone on the planet, save for the select group of people who will live…in Fujiawara’s massive underwater colony!

The Samurai Kill gets more and more sci-fi (and again more like Deep Sea Death) as a captured Carter and Siobhan are taken to Fujiawara’s domed city beneath the sea, in which a thousand or so people live. But talk about not reaping the potential. Carter’s in and out of the place within a few pages. Even worse is the lame, last-minute copout of Siobhan going turncoat and deciding to join “the bad guys.” Why? Because she thinks Fujiwara’s all man and stronger than even Carter and she wants to serve beside him. It’s all pretty hard to buy; honestly, Siobhan’s decision to suddenly go evil just comes out of nowhere. At first I thought it was just a ruse on her part, but nope, she stays evil until the bitter end.

The finale continues with the action focus, but rather than taking place in the underwater city (which would’ve been cooler) it instead takes place in a high school(?) on Kwalajein. It’s all like a summer blockbuster as Carter goes in, guns blazing (there’s more of a focus on guns here, too, again befitting it’s mid-‘80s publication), freeing the captured US soldiers and killing legions of wetsuited goons. The climax sees Carter and Fujiwara going at it with samurai swords while Siobhan stands by watching. Speaking of whom, Siobhan survives the book, telling Carter she regrets nothing and will no doubt cop a deal and go free; Hawk later confirms this, saying Siobhan will likely live out her years on a nice pension.

The spy-fy gadgetry of the early years is also here, in particular a pressurized, scuba-ready plastic suit Carter gets from AXE and smuggles into the underwater city beneath his clothes, conveniently enough. Pierre, the gas bomb he straps to his “upper thigh,” is used twice, and also interesting to note is that in this volume Carter loses both Wilhelmina, his Luger, and Hugo, his stiletto. But later on he just breaks out a replacement Wilhelmina, which is pretty funny, I mean the dude must have like a crate of Lugers he calls “Wilhelmina” and stilettos he calls “Hugo,” which doesn’t sound psychotic at all. In addition there’s the vast assortment of sci-fi tech at the disposal of Fujiwara, like those self-contained wetsuits his soldiers wear.

This was definitely one of my favorite volumes yet of the series, but I still wouldn’t rate it as high as The Sea Trap or even Deep Sea Death; there was just a bit too much repetition at times, and also given the expanded word count of these later installments a lot of the book comes off as padding. Also Siobhan’s going over to the dark side was lame and insulting to the reader, particularly given how she was basically in love with Carter throughout the book and even saved his bacon multiple times.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Boxer Unit OSS #2: Alpine Gambit

Boxer Unit OSS #2: Alpine Gambit, by Ned Cort
November, 1981 Warner Books

Another short-lived entry in Warner’s “Men Of Action” line, Boxer Unit OSS was like The Hook in that it was set in an earlier era: namely, WWII. Strangely though, the series takes place in the final months of the war, which makes you wonder how long they expected it could last.

The series was credited to the house name Ned Cort, but apparently it was the work of an author named Tom Jagninski, with whom I’m unfamiliar. Whoever he is, he’s more interested in exploring the brooding thoughts of his characters, waxing poetic about art and philosophy, or mulling over man’s inhumanity and etc, with the few action scenes quickly and almost perfunctorily rendered. The series only lasted five volumes, and maybe this is why. At any rate Boxer Unit OSS is about an American team of commandos who take on the Nazis (the series blurb in the back of the book implies they also fight on the Pacific front, but that’s not mentioned in the book itself).

Here’s how the first page breaks down the team:

I’ve gotta tell you, though, I had a hell of a time telling these dudes apart. And contrary to the cover depiction, there’s no female member of the team; in fact, the sole female character in the novel appears on maybe ten pages of text (four of which are sex scenes), and isn’t even graced with a name until near the end. Anyway the Boxer Unit itself is sort of like everything you wanted the Inglourious Basterds to be; whereas the characters in that film spent the majority of the time talking or being more sadistic than the Nazis they were after, the Boxer Unit parachutes in behind enemy lines and sows chaos and disruption.

Their present mission has them in Austria, where they are to determine if a rumored cavern complex, the so-called National Redoubt, actually exists. Intel has it that the Nazis, realizing the end is near, plan to hole up in a massive underground fortress in Austria and continue their Reich from within. Intel also has it that the Werewolves, ie the prepubescent terrorists who were former Nazi Youth, have also been spotted in the area in which the National Redoubt supposedly resides – also, there’s question if the Werewolves themselves exist or are yet another PR story by Joseph Goebbels.

The Werewolves do indeed exist, as our heroes learn late in the tale; it’s March of ’44 and the beleaguered Nazis have to rely on kids to do their fighting now. We get one of our few action scenes after the Boxer Unit parachutes into Austria; meeting up with their Russian contacts, they find an SS garrison has already detained them. A pitched but brief firefight ensues, complete with the memorable image of Chris Romer firing a submachine gun with each hand, something for which he’s well-known. Again, all like Inglourious Basterds should’ve been.

But from there it’s all downhill; the Unit splits up, with Chase and Kirilis off to Innsbruck, posing as SD intelligence men, while D’Arcy waits behind with a Russian soldier to monitor the radio and Romer goes off to pose as a worker. Rome in fact is taken out of the action quickly; the Germans have him transporting priceless works of art, plundered from Europe’s museums, to a castle near Innsbruck – a castle which turns out to be the mysterious Redoubt. Rather than an underworld complex, it’s just a castle in which the Nazis plan to store artwork and train Werewolves, to be unleashed on the invading Allied armies. But Romer’s quickly uncovered and spends the rest of the narrative captive.

The author also spends a lot of time on how D’Arcy doesn’t trust his Russian counterpart, who turns out to be a sadist who gets off on killing Germans. Meanwhile Chase and Kirilis go around Innsbruck in the leather fetish wear of the SD, sowing fear in the German rank and file. It’s all like that Star Trek episode Patterns of Force, where all you have to do is pose as a high-ranking Nazi and everyone will do whatever you want. Given their inhuman skill with German language (and I love how the cover boasts that the Boxer Unit is “multi-lingual” – I mean, watch out, Nazis!!), the two easily fool the SS and Nazi officers in Innsbruck into believing that they are true-blue members of the infamous Nazi intelligence party.

Much of the narrative is comprised of Chase and Kirilis interrogating Nazi “subordinates” in Innsbruck, trying to separate the Goebbels-created fantasty from reality. It’s all a headscratcher, really, as we readers already know the Redoubt doesn’t exist, thanks to the sequences featuring Romer. Meanwhile D’Arcy and his Russian comrade get in a few firefights with various Waffen SS troops. Along the way Kirilis manages to score with some German gal, who humorously enough isn’t even named; we just get a fairly explicit two-page sex scene where he boffs “the girl,” our author clearly, uh, “inserting” the scene due to some editorial demand.

Things don’t really pick up until Chase and Kirilis are escorted to the nearby castle in which Romer is being kept prisoner. Here Colonel Seibel, the young SS officer in charge, eagerly shows off his Werewolves; boys no older than 15 who are more lethal than men twice their age. The author adds some bizarre stuff with the appearance of Frederick, a 14 year-old Werewolf with steel hands! And he’s purposedly had his real hands cut off, replaced with these razor-sharp appendages…plus he can shoot the damn things off his arms!! It’s all so crazy and weird you have to love it, but unfortunately Jagninski doesn’t do much to exploit it, save for a too-brief bit later where Frederick and another Werewolf attack our heroes.

D’Arcy meanwhile heads for Innsbruck himself, where he not only deduces that Kirilis, a notorious hound, got laid, but also somehow deduces who he laid. Yep, it’s “the girl” again, and this time we’re informed she’s a German widow who has slept around with a vast assortment of SS brass. After a less explicit sequence than the earlier one, the girl points D’Arcy in the direction of his two undercover comrades…oh, and meanwhile, she knows who they all are. Turns out “the German girl” is really Caroline Chalmers, herself deep undercover, a spy with British Intelligence. Not only has she now slept with two members of the Boxer Unit, she also wants to help them take out the Werewolf castle. 

Romer freed and the Unit back together, our heroes, still using those SD credentials, gather up a bunch of explosives and head on out over the snowsept roads for the castle. There they set the charges and blow the sonofabitch sky high, priceless works of art (and young Werewolves) inside or not. And that’s that. Meanwhile Wild Bill Donovan, OSS chief and overall commander of the Boxer Unit, lights a pipe and exchanges more witty banter with his British colleague – the novel arbitrarily cuts over to these two characters, discussing the war in Paris or something, in an obvious page-filling gambit.

Overall, Alpine Gambit doesn’t have much sex or violence, features four main characters who are interchangeable (and easily confused), and really isn’t very memorable. It has a great cover, though.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Come Die With Me (Mark Hood #1)

Come Die With Me, by James Dark
July, 1965  Signet Books

Ian Fleming died in August of 1964, just as Bondmania was gripping the world. One more James Bond novel was published after Fleming’s death, The Man With The Golden Gun, but spy fiction fanatics would have to look elsewhere for their pulp espionage fix. Luckily, there were about a million cash-in Bonds operating out of the various paperback publishing lines; secret agent Mark Hood was just one of them.

Hood, a studly man of wealth (later volumes would give his age as 36), is American by birth but studied at Oxford, resulting in a worldly air with an American/British sort of accent. He’s world-famous for various things, not just due to his millionaire playboy status; he’s a pro cricket player, race car driver, and a karate champion, not to mention a world-class lover of the ladies. He also served in the US Navy, fought in the Korean War, and apparently was a commander of a destroyer-class ship at some point. But now he’s a top agent for Intertrust, a secret organization made up of “the four nuclear powers” of the world, its mission to prevent nuclear annihalation.

The Mark Hood series started life in Australia, but what’s interesting is how American it seems. Hood was born on Long Island and relates things to his American upbringing, yet the creators wanted to have their cake and eat it too, thus Hood also comes across as British thanks to his Oxford years. In other words the series appears to be a cash-in on both the James Bond novels and Nick Carter: Killmaster. And indeed author J.E. MacDonnell (aka “James Dark” in the US editions of the series) has a writing style that would be right at home in the world of book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel: pulpy but polished, clearly written in a hurry to meet a deadline, and yet still very professional.

The series ran for 14 volumes* from 1965 to 1970, but only 12 of the books made it over to America: #5: Spy From The Deep (1966) and #13: The Reluctant Assassin (1970) were for whatever reason not reprinted in America by Signet Books. Like Fleming himself, it appears that MacDonnell (“Dark” from here on out, cause it’s a helluva lot easier to type) began the series on reasonably level narrative ground before getting crazier, sort of how Fleming went from the staid (ie boring) Casino Royale to more out-there plots like Dr. No and Thunderball. Later volumes of Mark Hood feature mermen and underwater cities (#8: Operation Octopus) and even voodoo priests turned nuclear terrorists (#11: The Invisibles).

However this first volume, Come Die With Me, is more “realistic” than the series would gradually become. It does set the pace for the following books, though; the novel runs to only 128 pages, but be advised it’s got some small damn print. Hood is given a bit more of an intro than he likely will be in later books; nothing too page-consuming, just an overview of his international education, his military background, and how Intertrust works. Based out of Geneva, Hood reports to, at least this volume, two Intertrust bigwigs, one American and the other British. They give him his latest assignment: head to the Bahamas, where a trio of torpedo boats have been stolen. The atomic torpedos onboard aren’t the real worry; the third boat held a top-secret gizmo that could rattle the free world if it got into the wrong hands.

We’ve already seen the theft of the third boat in the opening sequence of the book. The mastermind behind the nefarious plot is a gaunt, “aesthetic”-faced sadist named Gauss who is a die-hard Nazi and served with Hitler years before. Making off with millions of stolen Nazi loot after the war, he’s now mega-wealthy and lives in a mountaintop fortress forty miles outside of Rio De Janeiro, right overtop the sea. (We eventually learn the torpedo boats are hidden in a cove far beneath his fortress, protected by an electrified cliffside stairway!) Gauss of course wants to start the Third Reich all over again, and plans to conquer the world, but the dude’s no Blofeld; he appears to just have a few henchmen working for him.

The novel has that old-school vibe which the Bond “continuation authors” of today fail to grasp (either due to changing social mores or the demands of their publisher): Hood smokes incessantly, drinks even more, calls women “girls,” and has that casual racism/elitism that was natural for Fleming’s Bond. So then Haitians are referred to as “Negroes,” and racial baiting and taunting is par for the course throughout. And as usual, while this stuff, antiquated and unpublishable in today’s world, is rampant throughout the book, the stuff that is considered okay today – like cursing and graphically-depicted sex – is missing.

And for the most part, so is the violence. Hood, despite being presented to us as a badass, constantly frets over things and tries to keep things from becoming too bloody. His weapon of choice appears to be a .32 automatic, not that he uses it; Hood relies mostly on his karate skills. His intro has him sparring with his karate sensei Murimoto (“the Jap,” per Dark); a glance through future volumes shows that Murimoto will be a recurring character. (Like a true obsessive I’ve already gotten all 12 of the Signet editions – and for a pittance!) Hood gets in his first scrape soon after arriving in Nassau, after quickly figuring out that the mysterious Gauss was likely behind the torpedo boat thefts as well as the murder/kidnapping of their officers.

Gauss has two henchmen: one is named Lott and is a former Nazi Youth (now “Gauss Adult” Hood later reflects) and the other is a “monstrous Negro” named Siboney who can almost decapitate a man with his bare hands. Siboney works as a bartender at a club owned by Gauss, the club in which the Navy officers were last seen, and Hood, there with sexy Prue Balfour, (secretary of Hood’s contact in the Bahamas, the Governor himself), baits Siboney into mortal combat. This is the most brutal action scene in the novel, as Hood uses savage strikes on the hulking thug, crushing his throat and tossing the corpse into the ocean.

But after that it’s all dialog, introspection, and exposition. Hood is quickly caught, drugged, and escorted to Cuba, where Gauss reveals himself and, you guessed it, asks Hood to work for him. As a test he has Hood beat up a “wineshop proprietor” who owes Gauss money or something. From there it’s to Gauss’s mountaintop aerie in Brazil, where he has used his vast wealth to pay off the local government. For a guy with delusions of world conquest, Gauss doesn’t seem very prepared; other than loyal Lott, Gauss only appears to have one or two other guys serving him, one of them a chaffeur/race car driver with a horriying face. This, we’re to believe, is why Gauss is so eager to employ Hood: he needs more men!

Also in Gauss’s castle is the lovely Maria Parana, a Brazilian beauty who works in the lab on the property and has no knowledge of her employer’s plans for global dominance. Maria has a specialty in bacteria research and Hood instantly deduces that she must be working on the “secret weapon” Gauss has been intimating to be in his possession. Sure enough Maria, in between telling Hood how “lonely” she’s been here in the castle, tells him that her new strain of super-bacteria could save the world – unless that is you happen to sprinkle it with certain material. Then it turns in to a goddamn nightmare! Global crops could be ruined…and yeah, she did mention all of this to Gauss, and he did seem interested to hear it, but why do you ask?

Cue the long-expected sex scene which doesn’t even fade to black; it happens between sentences, apparently, as Hood’s leaning overtop Maria’s still-clothed form and the next sentence they’re both smoking post-coital cigarettes. Mark Hood moves fast, baby! At dinner that night Gauss explains that he plans to begin his conquest the next day, so Hood, quickly recounting her employer’s horrible deeds, wins Maria over to his side. Her job will be to fool Gauss into thinking she wants to go into town for shopping but in reality she’ll sneak away to Rio and call the Governor in Nassau, telling him where Hood is and what’s going on.

The finale continues with the suspense angle, with the action still rather low-key; Hood karate-chops the chaffeur, gets in a race with him in which the chaffeur plummets off the cliff, and then he hops on the torpedo boat as it’s coming out of the cove and battles Lott and his comrade. The US troopship isn’t destroyed and Hood ends up launching the boat’s clean nukes right back at Gauss’s castle, killing the villain off-page, as it were. In the end a gloating Lott will inform Hood that poor old Maria was in one of the captured torpedo boats, and thus died along with Gauss when Hood nuked the place. Bummer!

As I finished Come Die With Me, it occurred to me that the book was more like Fleming’s Casino Royale than I realized. Like Bond in that book, Hood starts off the mission experienced but untried, and he too ends up falling in love with the girl (seriously, he and Maria even discuss marriage!). There’s even a shady club from which the villains operate. And like Bond Hood suffers heartbreak and desolation, presumably emerging from his first adventure a changed and hardened man.

As mentioned I’ve got the rest of the series, so while I wasn’t floored by this book I do look forward to reading more of Mark Hood’s adventures.

*The James Dark house name was also used in Australia, and two novels published under this name, The Spy From The Grave (1964) and Operation Jackal (1967), are sometimes listed as part of the Mark Hood series.  I have contacted some booksellers who have copies of these scarce, Australia-only books, and they have confirmed for me that the two novels are not part of the Mark Hood series.

Monday, November 9, 2015

14 Seconds To Hell (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #37)

14 Seconds To Hell, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

Jon Messman’s first contribution to the Nick Carter: Killmaster series isn’t as great as his masterpiece The Sea Trap nor is it as middling as his later entry The Executioners. At the very least the guy hits the ground running, with Nick Carter getting lucky within the first twenty pages and scoring his first kill in the first fifty. Messmann answered an ad series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel placed in the New York Times, seeking new ghostwriters, and he went on to deliver thirteen more installments. 

Like many of the other early Killmaster novels, 14 Seconds To Hell has Nick going up against the Chicoms, ie the Red Chinese. In fact he’s already on assignment in Hong Kong when we meet him, sent here to Asia by boss David Hawk to take down Dr. Hsu Fan, a fanatical Chicom scientist who plans, without his government’s blessing, to launch an atomic attack on both the US and the USSR. Given the threat to Russia, Moscow has sent in its own agent to assist Nick, and who will be surprised when it turns out to be a super-hot blonde babe with a phenomenal bod?

Her name is Alexi Lubova and, promptly after meeting Nick, she takes him back to her shack in the “rooftop people” gutter section of Hong Kong and proceeds to bang the holy hell out of him. Already with his first volume Messmann displays how his sex scenes are a bit more graphic and descriptive than his fellow ghostwriters, though to be sure it’s not exactly hardcore porn or anything. We do get the memorable tidbit that Alexi thrashes around in such enjoyment that Nick’s afraid she’s about to knock over the shack! And, just as in a similar instance in The Sea Trap, Messmann proves he’s not above back-to-back sex scenes, with Nick and Alexi exchanging a few lines of dialog before going right back at it again, banging away on those poor shack walls.

Surprisingly enough, Messmannn proceeds to write yet a third sex scene, when Nick and Alexi meet again the next morning in Nick’s hotel room; but this time Nick notes how Alexi, rather than thrashing about, has a “quiet, intense purposefulness” about her during the humpin’. This continues for a while, Nick and Alexi meeting up either at her place or at Nick’s hotel, trading brief dialog about the assignment in between all the banging, and the gal’s either thrashing crazily or being all “quiet” and “intense,” and Nick’s getting confused. But one thing that can be said about Alexi is she can handle herself; when a Chinese official tries to take her off for questioning, she quickly kills the guy with some fancy martial arts moves.

Gradually Nick finds out the surprise reveal – ruined thanks to the back cover copy – that he’s actually working with a pair of twin spies! Alexi is the thrasher and her twin sister Anya is the quiet one – for Nick has discovered this is the one true way to tell the ladies apart. (And by the way, Messmann does not go all the way with it and write a scene with Nick entertaining both girls at once, though he does have Nick wondering what it would be like!) Now that all that’s gotten out of the way, it’s time to get on with the mission.

The middle half is a bit slow, with Nick and the sisters finding their contact on a Chinese junk has been compromised (another brief action scene with both Alexi and Anya taking out some Chinese soldiers) and thus having to figure out how to get over to the Chinese mainland. They steal a junk, get to the mainland, steal a convoy truck. Along the way Messmann delivers a great scene where the trio is spotted by a Chinese boy and Nick demands that they catch “the little bastard” because in Commie China everyone’s a government spy. They track the kid down to a shack in the middle of nowhere, just the kid, his mom, and his dad, but the dad’s already high-tailing it to the village center to report the three foreigners.

Nick chases him down and a brutal fight ensues, the farmer going at Nick with a scythe. Nick kills him, goes back to the shack – and says they have to kill the kid and the mom, too. The girls are of course appalled, and Nick thinks to himself this is another reason why there should be no female secret agents; their maternal instinct gets in the way of the cold-bloodedness sometimes required of the job. Yet the girls know Nick is right; the kid and mother could blow their whole mission and millions might die as a result.

This sequence, brief but tense, is more powerful than any modern spy movie, where the protagonists go out of their way to avoid collateral damage and whatnot – for example, my wife watched this stupid summer TV show called The Whispers, which featured several “emotionally gripping moments” where the male and female FBI protagonists kept trying to prevent various alien-controlled/world-destroying children from getting killed. Yeah, right!! But anyway, Nick opts to interrogate the mom and son separately, and given they both deliver the same responses, he decides to spare them – tying them up and throwing them in a cellar.

Dr. Hsu Fan resides in a remote fortress in the hinterlands of South China, where he has seven nuclear warheads ready to launch on America and Russia. AXE has given Nick a can of shaving cream that disassembles into seven miniature atomic bombs; he’ll use these to blow up each of Hsu Fan’s rockets. But when he and the two women sneak onto the base, they’re spotted and these strange metallic discs come up from the ground and spray the compound with knockout gas. Nick wakes up, nude and bound, Alexi and Anya bound and nude beside him. Here they meet Dr. Hsu Fan, who comes off exactly like Dr. No, only without the metal hands. 

Around page 100 things get real insane. This tech wheels in an EKG-like machine and hooks up electrodes to Alexi and Anya’s nipples, then insert a phallus-type gadget into each of them. My friends, it’s an orgasm machine, and Dr. Hsu Fan happily reveals how he is a believer of “exquisite pain” instead of old-fashioned torture. A person can steel himself to withstand torture, but when it comes to pleasure he or she might find his defenses lacking. In short, this orgasm machine will give a woman the most powerful climax she’s ever had…again and again and again. It goes from ecstasy to misery.

To prove this, the sadistic doctor takes Nick into his veritable chamber of horrors: a room containing caged women, each of whom were tortured by the machine. They’re now each mind-shattered wrecks, pitiful, destroyed things, and it’s not only all so wonderfully crazy and bizarre but it’s also a precursor to the similar scene of the caged, maddened women in The Sea Trap. Nick, coming to the obvious conclusion, realizes Hsu Fan is an “unholy, perverted sonofabitch,” and was likely spurned by a Western woman, hence his hatred of them – the majority of the women in here are white, and the doctor shows special relish in torturing Alexi and Anya.

We get to see the orgasm machine in action, the two sisters quickly reduced to shuddering, gasping, climaxing misery. Nick knows they’ll go nuts if the machine isn’t turned off, and Anya’s already showing signs of losing her mind. Nick plays like he’s in love with her and pleads with Hsu Fan to stop the torture, giving him a bullshit story about the three of them just being sent to see what’s going on here. Per tradition Hsu Fan buys it and tosses Nick and the two women in a shack, rather than just killing them; he wants Nick to watch as he launches his seven warheads the next morning, as a veritable final slap to the face of the West or something. And who will be surprised when Nick soon turns the advantage to himself? 

Dr. Hsu Fan is almost perfunctorily disposed of; after voice-activating his planted charges the next morning, destroying the missiles before they can launch, Nick then dispatches the sadistic doctor with a Chinese broadsword. Unfortunately, there are about thirty pages still left to go. The final quarter of 14 Seconds To Hell is composed of a long chase sequence, as Red Chinese soldiers scour the countryside in search of Nick and the two women, both of whom are still frazzled from the ecstasy-torture. When all hope seems to be lost, the army surrounding them from all sides, help arrives from the most unlikely source – the kid Nick was going to kill!

In a complete bullshit copout, the kid shows Nick and the sisters a hidden way out into the ocean, saying that now “the debt is repaid,” as Nick could’ve killed him but didn’t. That Nick killed the kid’s dad is conveniently overlooked. A US sub picks them up and takes them to safety. Now Nick’s big concern is making sure Alexi and Anya can completely recover. Anya is going back to Russia, but Alexi wants to stay in the US; Hawk hooks them up with a posh suite in a New York hotel and Nick devotes his entire being to giving the gal some good lovin’ to help her recover.

Messmann again proves why he’s one of the best Killmaster ghostwriters, ending the novel on a three-page sex scene that’s not only more explicit than those that came before, but also has a bit of emotional content to it, as Nick’s skills in the sack succeed in bringing Alexi out of her damaged psychological shell. While it never becomes total porn it’s still pretty graphic, more so than any other Killmaster novel I’ve read from this era, save for The Sea Trap.

Anyway, this was another fun, quick-moving installment, and this is becoming one of my favorite series.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Kane's War #1

Kane's War #1, by Nick Stone
March, 1987  Ivy/Ballantine Books

Coming off like an ‘80s take on the Killinger series, Kane’s War ran for seven volumes and appears to have been, like that earlier series, an attempt at melding Travis McGee-style “marina mystery” with the men’s adventure genre. Unlike Killinger, though, this series, at least judging from the first volume, isn’t a snoozefest, and turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I expected. Even if it is way too long at a bloated 260+ pages of small print.

Like Killinger, our hero Ben Kane is a studly, muscle-bound dude who lives on a fancy Chinese junk, the Wu-Li. He even has a talking parrot on board, same as Killinger. Also, Kane is a blonde bronzed giant, unlike the brown-haired character depicted on all seven covers of the series (humorously, on the last volume Kane was given a perm on the cover art). A river boat captain in ‘Nam (just like in Apocalypse Now!), Kane eventually started working for the CIA, reporting to a shady operative named Cord Weaver. Kane’s War opens with a prologue set in 1979 or so, in which Kane wants to quit but figures Weaver will have him killed, because who’s ever heard of a retired spy?

On his last mission Kane manages to stash away a million dollars, courtesy some drug dealers who try to kill him. Kane fools Weaver into thinking the money sank in the boat with the now-dead drug dealers, and then Kane says so long. Eight years later and Kane runs a charter boat business in the Virgin Islands, which he started with the stolen money. He’s now very successful, both in business and with the ladies, who come on hard and strong to the V.I.’s resident ‘Nam vet superstud. Kane’s brought along some old ‘Nam pals: Ganja, a dreadlocked Jamaican who gets his name from the copious weed he smokes and served on a boat in ‘Nam with Kane; Chief, a gruff older guy (compared to actor Victor McLaglen) who act like a mother hen or something; and Miles, a former Navy SEAL who does absolutely nothing this time out.

It must be said that Ben Kane doesn’t acquit himself very well in this introductory volume. In the course of Kane’s War he’s swindled, captured, tortured, left for dead, knocked out (many, many times), and even shot multiple times (saved only by a bulletproof vest). It’s almost comical in a way; seriously, Kane spends the first half of the novel convalescing, lying around in bed and hobbling on crutches. When he gets back to his old fighting self he still comes off like a klutz, getting knocked out by richocheting bullets, gunned down by submachine gun fire, even constantly dropping his pistol in the leadup to the novel’s climactic action sequence.

The tomfoolery begins posthaste, with Kane deciding to tuck in early one night. When he goes back to the Wu-Li, this hotstuff brunette with the greatest body Kane’s ever seen (and apparently he’s seen a bunch) is waiting for him. She claims they met once at a party (Kane is sort of a notable on the island, invited to all the VIP events) and Kane gave her an open invite to his junk; he’s forgotten all about this, but the lady does look familiar, and then there are those awesome boobs she’s got…the lady kisses Kane, who despite his excitement is still smart enough from his spy years to suspect a trap, reaching for the .32 he keeps in his pocket, concealed by a handkerchief. Then the lady digs her fingernails into the back of his neck and Kane spirals into darkness. Poisoned fingernail polish!

Here begins an overlong torture sequence, which even features ‘Nam flashbacks as Kane’s mind comes close to snapping. A group of masked men surround Kane, who is tied to a chair on his own house-boat. They electrocute him over the course of several hours, the attractive (and clearly distraught) bait still there, watching it all; at one point the Talker (as Kane refers to the only member of the group who speaks) even offers the girl to Kane for a week of mind-blowing sex. All if Kane will tell them where he keeps his money. You see, these dudes know Kane’s business is doing well, but he came out of nowhere and set himself up on the island too quickly, so he must have an in-line to major cash.

After mucho torture, the sole of Kane’s left foot (which was injured in the war and occasionally still gives him trouble) almost singed off, our hero finally gives up and tells the bastards where he’s stashed the remainder of his million bucks: in an old suitcase no one would notice onboard the ship. But the guys are certain Kane has even more money and that he’s working with drug runners; they want him to work for them. Kane tells them where he got the money but they don’t believe him. They give him a few days to think about it and leave. When Kane comes too he’s in the hospital, near death and with an almost-ruined foot, but meanwhile the hot busty nurse keeps checking him out and vice versa.

Kane receives an assortment of visitors, chief among them his sometimes-girlfriend Michelle Mullhaney, hotstuff twenty-something daughter of Mike Mullhaney, who owns a shipyard or something and is a business associate of Kane’s; we’re treated to some flashback sex as Kane reminisces about the time Michelle, whom he’s known since she was a gawky kid, came to him as a now-gorgeous young adult and announced, “I want to get fucked!” Also, given the publication date, the sex scenes in Kane’s War are stronger than what you’d read in earlier examples of the men’s adventure genre; not total hardcore, but certainly explicit. Michelle begs Kane to come stay with her when he’s discharged, so she can nurse him back to help; he accepts.

But then Kane’s visited by yet another father-daughter combo, and again it’s a case where Kane’s been boffing the daughter without the father’s knowledge (curiously, that Kane’s sleeping with two daughters of wealth isn’t much explored): Lord Philip Carlisle, Crown Commissioner of the British Virgin Islands, and his hotstuff blonde daughter Jessica. Lord Philip invites Kane over to his mansion on B.V.I., saying that he’s set Kane up with some prospective clients, as Kane’s been wanting to branch out into the lucrative British Virgin Islands for a long time. More importantly, judging by the way she’s batting those eyelashes at him, Kane figures it’ll also make for a perfect opportunity to screw Jessica again.

And we get another explicit sexual event, as Jessica visits a still-weak Kane in his room in the mansion that night; poor old Michelle’s pretty much forgotten. And meanwhile she’s abducted, spirited away in a helicopter by another group of drug smugglers who want to find out where Ben Kane gets his stuff. Poor Michelle will be taken to a yacht, stripped, pawed by the overweight lecher who has kidnapped her, and even licked all over the place by the lecher’s female sidekick. Meanwhile Ben Kane keeps on boffing Jessica over on the British side of the islands, oblivious to the fact that at least three criminal factions are looking for him, let alone Cord Weaver, who has shown back up and wants Kane to work for him again.

Action is for the most part sporadic. First a fake doctor tries to kill Kane while in the hospital, but Kane breaks the dude’s neck, instantly spotting him as a would-be hitman. Later Kane and Jessica are shot at by a sniper, who is taken out by one of Weaver’s men – the goofily-codenamed Waiting Fox, who works with Kane a few more times in the novel. Things don’t pick up until Kane, recovered enough (and having engaged Jessica in a few more sex scenes), teams back up with Weaver for “one last mission.” Here Kane is informed that Michelle’s been kidnapped and is being held on a yacht. Kane’s eager to go kick ass.

Despite all the text given over to Kane’s horribly-injured left foot, he’s suddenly able to parachute over the Caribbean in the pre-dawn hours with a Weaver commando team, landing on the drug kingpin’s yacht. A brief action scene ensues with submachine guns blazing. Kane proves again his ineptitude, knocked out like a second after he lands on the deck. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. His bacon is saved by a pair of Weaver agents who pose as father and daughter. After reuniting ever so briefly with Michelle, Kane’s informed by Weaver that there are two more drug factions out there, still gunning for him; plus Weaver knows, has known all along, who captured and tortured Kane back in the beginning of the book.

This takes us into the homestretch, as Weaver instructs Kane to pretend as if he’s going to cater to the drugger demands, after all, and hook them up with his (fictional) drug contacts. In particular these druggers, revealed to be new-style Mafioso, are looking for designer drugs, similar to what that brick shithouse-bodied gal used on Kane at the beginning of the book. Speaking of whom, the gal’s name is Pammy, Weaver reveals, and she’s a notorious Virgin Islands whore who serves as a honey trap for various criminal factions, though Pammy herself is an innocent little lamb…she just likes to screw a whole bunch.

And Kane finally gets to do her, two hundred pages after they first met, Pammy taking him back to her mirror-ceilinged bedroom, and another fairly-explicit sex scene ensuing. Unfortunately the climactic action scene is perfunctory; Kane, with Ganja and Waiting Fox, choppers in to a remote destination to trade drugs for money with the mafioso. But Kane instantly realizes he’s been handed a suitcase of counterfeit and his chopper has likely been wired to explode. So he whips out the Czech machine pistol hidden in his briefcase (that is, after klutzy Kane has tripped and fallen into an empty swimming pool) and blows away a few of ‘em. But meanwhile the boss turns out to be a lookalike and the real one’s back in the States, safe from any prosecution.

Kane swears that’s it, but Cord Weaver is certain Kane will again work for him, what with all the drug-runners and Commie agents moving into the Caribbean these days. Guess who’s right? An unusual thing about Kane’s War, at least so far as this first one goes, is that it doesn’t really capitalize on the Virgin Islands setting. I see that cover art and I expect cigarette boat chases and underwater scuba battles, but nothing of the sort happens. One of the villains lives on a yacht, but that’s about it. Otherwise the locale isn’t much captured.

The writing though is pretty good throughout, better than I expected it to be. POV-hopping is kept to a minimum and so is the ‘80s-mandatory gun porn. Dialog is pretty good, and the characters come off as more than just cardboard cutouts. The sex and violence are both graphically depicted, which as far as I’m conerned is a hardcore pulp fiction requirement. If I had any complaint it would be that some of the action scenes are a little confusing, given how they’re written, and the author relies a bit too much on dialog modifiers. Characters are always “quipping” or “retorting” or etc, instead of just plain “saying.”

So who was Nick Stone? The book’s copyright Ivy/Ballantine, so likely it’s a pseudonym. Unfortunately the name isn’t listed in Hawk’s Authors’s Pseudonyms, and I can find no listings of the Kane’s War books in the Catalog of Copyright Entries. But according to Martin O’Hearn, posting on Thomas McNulty’s blog, “Nick Stone” was actually Nicholas Cain, a prolific ‘Nam action series writer in the ‘80s, most known for his Saigon Commandos series, which he published under the name “Jonathan Cain.” I’m willing to bet that Martin is correct and that Kane’s War is indeed the work of Cain.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Lady Killer (aka The New Lady From L.U.S.T. #6)

The Lady Killer, by Rod Gray
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower Books

The Lady From L.U.S.T. was another of those ‘60s spy paperback series that was packaged as sleaze but was really just goofy satire. I’ve tried reading these types of books before (M.O.T.H.E.R. Versus Mafia by Rosemary Santini, one of Clyde Allison’s Man From Sadisto books, etc) and they just fell flat for me; too much focus on ridiculous acronyms, character names, and plots, and too little focus on action, suspense, or thrills. In short, these books kind of suck, just light-hearted spy spoofs that aren’t funny.

The Lady From L.U.S.T. series was likely no different, but the books in this series go for stupid prices these days; apparently Gardner Fox served under the house name of “Rod Grey” for the majority (all?) of the 18 installments from the series inception in 1967 to its end in 1973. Two years later Belmont Tower brought the series back, this time as The New Lady From L.U.S.T., and it ran for two years, amounting to seven volumes. The Rod Gray house name was once again used, but apparently Gardner Fox wasn’t the writer this time. I’m guessing it was a revolving door of ghostwriters, and it’s only a fluke – actually, my own sad over-familiriaty with trash fiction – that led me to discovering who wrote this particular volume.

Anyway, what with sleaze being at critical mass in the mid-‘70s, the New Lady From L.U.S.T. was a lot more hardcore than the earlier series had been; I have one of those early installments, #4: Five Beds To Mecca, from 1968, and it appears to go for the expected lyrical/metaphorical approach in the sex scenes, which are of course light-hearted to begin with. Compare to The Lady Killer, in which the three brief sex scenes on offer are straight-up porn, with the anatomical parts in question clearly named and no purple prose getting in the way of the humpin’ and bumpin’.

That being said, the series, at least judging from this entry, is still pretty lame. The Lady Killer is not much of a spy novel, even comparitively speaking; it’s more along the lines of a private eye novel. Hell, protagonist/narrator Eve Drum is even made a temporary detective in New York City during the course of her investigation. Eve is a gorgeous blonde with a brick shithouse bod (she kindly gives us her measurements on the first page) and she lives in a penthouse in Manhattan where she poses as a worldly, well-to-do socialite. All very much like Cherry Delight, of course, and in many ways The Lady Killer is very similar to Len Levinson’s contribution to that series.

Eve works for top-secret spy organization L.U.S.T., and per the back cover her archenemy is the evil organization H.A.T.E., which not only plays on the SPECTRE deal but also is yet another indication of the unfortunate focus on punny acronyms these spy spoofs were known for. Now, H.A.T.E. is namedropped on the back cover, but the dudes don’t even really show up until the final page. Instead, The Lady Killer is an Agathie Christie-type deal where four doctors who have invented a new, stronger form of methadone are being killed off one by one by a sadistic redheaded female assassin. Eve Drum must figure out who is behind the plot and how to stop further killings.

The first few chapters alternate between Eve’s humdrum narration – her life in Manhattan, her casual sex affair with boss David Anderzanian, her current paramour Mac Morris, a famous mystery novelist – and third-person chapters in which an attractive redhead named Jobeena goes out on assassination missions. This alternating viewpoint stuff, particularly with the skewed viewpoint of the clearly-disturbed female villain, was the first element that started nagging at the ol’ memory banks – I was certain I’d read something almost identical to this before. As the book progressed, with Eve using her wits and beauty rather than weapons or karate, and particularly with Eve coming to the conclusion that the redhead was getting revenge for something that happened in the past, it all gradually came to me.

My friends, this is the exact same plot J.C. Conaway gave us in Deadlier Than The Male. It’s even written identically (save for the fact that Deadlier Than The Male is in third-person throughout), with the alternating viewpoints and the gradual reveal that something rotten happened on a college campus several years before, something which is now causing rampant death. It’s basically the same novel J.C. Conaway delivered two years later, once again via Belmont Tower Books.

At this point I did some deep Google diving and enjoyed one of my rare moments of vindication: according to the 1975 Catalog of Copyright Entries, The Lady Killer was indeed written by J.C. “Jim” Conaway.

As with that later Jana Blake novel, The Lady Killer is a slow-moving affair that’s more concerned with detailing the mundanities of the heroine’s high-society life while sleazing things up every once in a while with visits to New York’s more sordid establishments. You know it’s a ‘70s Belmont Tower book when the first murder takes place in a massage parlor, and Conaway brings the place to such grungy life that you suspect he might’ve visited a few such parlors for “research.” A later kill takes place in a gay nightclub called The Tubs which again has the same sort of over-the-top debauched vibe as the disco club in Deadlier Than The Male (where a murder was committed, as well).

And like Jana Blake, Eve isn’t an ass-kicking protagonist by any means. In the course of the 160-some pages of the novel she chops one dude in the throat and, in the very final pages, shoots two H.A.T.E. guys in the shoulder. She’s more in the brains department, but it’s not like this case is a puzzler. As mentioned Eve learns that these four doctors were pals in Harvard over a decade ago, where something mysterious happened. Eve’s certain that whatever it was is what’s causing these murders today. In yet another prefigure of Deadlier Than The Male, no one but Eve believes this theory, particularly the gruff New York detective who is working the case (yep, just like in Deadlier Than The Male).

While Eve isn’t much for the fighting, she’s quite capable in the lovin’ department, bedding her boss David, her boyfriend Mac, and a muscle-bound club bouncer. Each sequence runs a few paragraphs and leaves nothing to the imagination, though yet here again we have that strange conundrum where a male writer delivers hardcore sex scenes from a female character’s point of view. The scenes don’t go on very long, though, yet coupled with the massage parlor and gay nightclub stuff it all lends the novel an overall sleazy feel, which is again typical of every Conaway book I’ve yet read.

One difference between this and Deadlier Than The Male is that Eve, suprisingly, does not boff the studly detective she works the case with, though Conaway gives a few intimations that they might before he apparently forgets all about it. Rather, more time is given to Serena, a teenaged Gypsy girl who had a hardscrabble youth and now, at seventeen, works in the massage parlor in which the first murder occurs. Eve pities the young girl and actually takes her home with her (Serena’s lecherous boss at the massage parlor is the recipient of Eve’s karate chop), giving her nice clothes and eventually hooking her up with a job as a typist at L.U.S.T. HQ in Manhattan. (The novel features a “several months later” epilogue in which we learn that Serena has gotten married…to Eve’s boyfriend Mac Morris!)

It turns out that redhead assassin Jobeena was raped as a young Radcliff student a decade ago by those four Harvard doctors, and somehow H.A.T.E., wanting now to steal the secrets of their new drug and sell it to the commies, got wind of her sad plight and hired her as an assassin. Or something! Jobeena actually takes out three of the doctors (the third one she strangles with his blood pressure monitor) before Eve figures out what’s going on. However Eve herself is quickly caught by Jobeena, who delivers on her promise to H.A.T.E. by handing them Eve Drum on a veritable silver platter.

Things look bad for our heroine, but Conaway delivers another of his cheesy copout finales with the appearance of a little boy who lives in Jobeena’s building and who just happens to be going by the window of the cellar Eve and Serena are captive in. Eve gets the kid to come in and tells them they’re play-acting as spies and the kid unties them! Then Eve karate-chops Jobeena (who is eventually arrested and sent to an insane asylum), shoots a few of the H.A.T.E. dudes (not killing them), and that’s that.

So yeah, this was a pretty unsatisfying read, filled with mundane, expository dialog and boring snatches of non-action, salvaged only by brief flashes of sleaze – which pretty much describes every other novel I’ve read by J.C. Conaway!