Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Hard Corps #3: White Heat

The Hard Corps #3: White Heat, by Chuck Bainbridge
July, 1987  Jove Books

The Indian’s body convulsed wildly as high-velocity slugs crushed into his torso.

With an opening sentence like that, you know William Fieldhouse is back in the writing saddle. The Hard Corps return in an adventure set a month or so after their previous mission. We learn that the team has finally rebuilt its secret base in the state of Washington, which was destroyed in the first volume; now it’s time for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.

Then their CIA contact Saintly choppers in and bullies them into another mission: to go down to Bolivia and blow away a few cocaine-manufacturing plants that belong to El Dorado, which is the top cartel in South America. But Fieldhouse delivers more than just another “drug war” scenario, with the revelation that a faction of El Dorado is actually run by Weisal, an old Nazi, one who fled down here after the war with the hopes of raising a neo-Nazi army. Now too old and feeble, the old man has turned the rule over to his sadistic son, Erik, who while still being a Nazi is more concerned with creating a cocaine empire than any sort of new Reich.

Unfortunately, despite this novel premise the entire Nazi angle is abruptly lost, with only cursory mentions of swastikas flying over Weisal’s various encampments in Bolivia. In fact, Erik Weisal himself disappears for the majority of the narrative, Fieldhouse keeping his four heroes in center frame throughout. They’re the usual motley bunch, with Joe Fanelli all fired up for a bit of cheap sex with any woman he can find, morose Steve Caine content to just wander around the woods and perfect his silent stalking methods, James Wentworth just wanting to practice his samurai sword technique and do some reading, and team leader William O’Neal as stoic and bland as ever.

Reluctantly canceling their r’n’r, the Hard Corps head on down to South America, where they’re put in touch with their helper for this installment, a burly DEA agent named Garcia. We’ve already seen a few DEA agents get wasted by El Dorado goons, so Garcia is understandably driven to wipe them out. He puts the Hard Corps in touch with a locally-based gunrunner named Paddy Murphy, a walking cliché who escaped to Bolivia after getting in hot water in his native Ireland for selling arms to both the Irish army and the NRA. Paddy is greasy and fat and more interested in drinking whiskey.

But we know by now the rule in practically every Fieldhouse novel – when characters enter a bar, a brawl will soon break out. And right on cue one does, with some of Paddy’s upset customers coming to collect a refund in his blood. In steps O’Neal and his “mercs” (as Fieldhouse often refers to his heroes), who, despite not even liking Paddy, get in an extended fight with the goons, a fight that just keeps going on and on. Meanwhile Paddy doesn’t have much to offer the guys in the way of firepower, but it’s enough for the Corps to pull off the ambush they’ve been hired for.

The novel’s first big action sequence has the Hard Corps taking out one of El Dorado’s factions in this vicinity. The CIA order is just to make a messy hit, and this is accomplished with much gunfire and explosions and gory exit wounds. Fieldhouse as ever doesn’t cheat his readers on the blood and violence demanded of the men’s adventure genre, but this being the ‘80s, the once-mandatory sex element is of course nonexistent. Hell, there isn’t even a single female character in the entire novel. In that regard the Hard Corps series is very similar to something from Gold Eagle Books.

With their task done, the team figures they can go collect payment, but in the aftermath they discover that one of their victims not only was a high-ranking member of El Dorado, but also happened to be the son of a powerful man in Bolivia’s government. Realizing they won’t be able to escape – the government will obviously be on the lookout for military-looking Americans – they instead split up and fade into the woodwork of desolate areas of Bolivia. Fanelli and Paddy Murphy pair off, which is such a total setup on Fieldhouse’s part, given that we were informed earlier that Fanelli was a drunk and has been sober for ten years.

And guess what? Paddy insists they go to a bar. “One drink won’t hurt you,” he keeps pressuring, and next thing Fanelli’s drunk as a skunk and, you won’t be surprised, another bar brawl breaks out. This one lands Fanelli in jail, so we’re treated to an arbitrary but page-filling bit where the other members of the team pull a heist to break him out. During this O’Neal and the others have been approached by Raul, a young Bolivian Indian who begs for their help to take on a gang that’s been tormenting and pillaging his village.

O’Neal tells the kid to go to hell, but persistent Raul tracks the Corps down to their hotel next morning and informs them that their comrade Fanelli has been imprisoned. Raul offers to help free him in exchange for the Corps helping his village. This serves to take us into the homestretch, as the Corps ventures deep in-country, where they find a primitive village of old men and youth who have no weapons whatsoever. But Steve Caine, with his much-vaunted “Kantu tribe” training (per his time in the ‘Nam), teaches them how to make weapons with spears and whatnot. Fanelli, the demolitions expert, even figures out how to make explosives with bat shit.

More weapons are discovered buried near the village, put there decades ago by followers of Che Guevara and stored in gun oil against the elements. Again per the Fieldhouse method, as soon as the Hard Corps gets these guns, an El Dorado strike force happens to show up and a massive firefight ensues. Heads explode and guts splash to the ground. These guys work for Weisal, which finally brings the sort-of neo-Nazi back into the picture. When O’Neal discovers from Raul that this faction of El Dorado is run by a neo-Nazi, he decides to just wipe them all out – he’s always wanted to kill a Nazi.

The climactic battle features an ambush on Weisal’s forward base in the jungle, where Steve Caine again comes off as the most skilled of the team, hacking and slashing guards silently. True to the spirit of a lot of these ‘80s men’s adventure books, though, it all just keeps going and going, complete with O’Neal and team, out of bullets, even engaging various of Weisal’s thugs in protracted fistfights. And it keeps going, with Weisal blasting at the Corps with a hidden machine gun, and then coming at them again later with some sort of “armored wall” protecting him.

By this point you’d love like a three-paragraph description of Erik Weisal’s head exploding, but for some reason Fieldhouse denies us this and just ends the chapter with O’Neal about to kill him. And that’s that; the Hard Corps has suffered some losses (none of them have suffered personally, of course), but the job’s done so now it’s just to return to the States and collect payment.

So overall, White Heat does the job of providing ‘80s action and gore, with nothing like deep characterization or heavy plotting to get in the way. But Fieldhouse is a skilled action writer and keeps it all moving, even managing at times to give his characters some individual spark. And yet there’s nothing really novel about the series; it’s just another ‘80s men’s adventure-type deal, with none of the goofy charm of the first volume. So in other words, not bad but not great.

Monday, December 28, 2015

John Eagle Expeditor #12: The Green Goddess

John Eagle Expeditor #12: The Green Goddess, by Paul Edwards
August, 1975  Pyramid Books

After a two-year absence, Manning Lee Stokes returns to the John Eagle Expeditor series with his first contribution since the awesomely lurid #5: Valley Of Vultures. Stokes continues the sort of series reset of the previous volume (which attempted to fashion the books more as straight spy stories), only occasionally featuring the exotic adventure fiction of the earlier volumes. And while it does achieve some pulpy, lurid heights, be warned that, like much of Stokes’s work, The Green Goddess takes its time to get going.

Stokes was 64 when The Green Goddess was published (and would die just five months later, unfortunately), and it’s impressive how this guy was in accord with the changing, more permissive times. What I mean to say is, the dude enjoyed his sleaze. Stokes injects a healthy portion of sleaze into the novel, from Eagle making a fake obscene phone call (where he delivers the immortal line, “We’re gonna crack our nuts over the phone”) to Eagle watching as a dead girl is raped…twice. And while previous volumes, including the non-Stokes volumes, have all had very lurid vibes, rarely if ever did anyone curse; Stokes takes care of that within the first few pages, doling out a barrage of F-bombs and other such filthy language that almost made me put down the book and pray.

First though the back cover copy, which is so bonkers I just had to share it with you. Whoever wrote this (perhaps series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel himself?) clearly had no idea what the overriding plot of The Green Goddess was, so just went for it with vague, lurid hypberbole:

And I have to say, The Green Goddess really is all over the place for the first 50-some pages (of typically small, small print – our man Stokes does not shirk on his word count). Starting off with a plane crash in Boston (and boy was I sure happy to read that right before taking a flight myself), the novel throws the reader in with no idea of what’s going on and who is doing what. We learn that a State Department courier named Christian Pangborn was on that flight, and that he had some sort of attache case that was spirited away from the scene. But by whom? And what exactly was in the case? 

A dude named Fred Talbert, Mr. Merlin’s man in Washington, DC, is on the case. We get a lot of padding material about this, with Stokes getting more experimental in his latter days with various fonts and even letters written in triplicate as various characters read letters and briefs. Pangborn was being watched by various people, among them two KGB agents working as free-lancers in the US: Boris Chebotarev and Zoya Tchekov. Stokes speends a goodly portion of the novel cutting over to these two guys as they get in long, long discussions, and it’s all very similar to the page-filling, inconsequential discussions of Admiral Coffin and the head of the Navy in Stokes’s earlier Aquanauts series.

Pangborn was having an affair with a young schoolteacher named Doris Morrisan who lives in Vermont. Here is where our hero John Eagle finally enters the scene; per the tradition of the earliest installments, Eagle doesn’t appear until well into the book. He’s called in by Mr. Merlin (who himself is given a rather cursory introduction, rather than the usual belabored affair of him looking down for many pages into the gaping maw of the Hawaiian volcano which his mountaintop aerie overlooks), who instructs Eagle’s contact Samson (a recurring character) to order Eagle up to Vermont to watch Doris Morrisan and determine if anyone else is watching her – the vague concern is that Pangborn might’ve spilled some intel to her, or something.

Eagle is as taciturn and all-business as ever in Stokes’s hands. We learn here that he’s been serving Mr. Merlin for three years, with two years left to go until his contract is fulfilled and he’s awarded a million dollars (up from the original payment as stated in the first volume, which was also written by Stokes). (Another intesterting tidbit is the revelation this time that there are other Expeditors, though Eagle is the first and best, of course.)  One return to the previous volume (and also Valley Of Vultures, now that I think of it) is that Eagle goes off without his customary gadgets and weapons. He calls Doris Morrisan upon his arrival in the “village” of Montrose, Vermont, and quickly deduces someone is there in the house with her – someone the young lady is terrified of.

As mentioned, Eagle for no reason other than Stokes’s penchant for sleaze subjects the girl to an obscene phone call; in the few seconds before he heard another extension on her line picked up, he told the girl he was “a friend.” His goal is to see how long he can draw out the other person, or something. All that really matters is that Stokes treats us to a few pages of a dirty-talking John Eagle, which in itself is pretty fun. But it’s all got a downer ending, for when Eagle sneaks to the lady’s place he finds her, as mentioned, lying nude on her bed, her neck broken, while a big stooge rapes her corpse.

Eagle is however as savage as ever; he ambushes the dude, who turns out to be a Commie sleeper agent born in Boston, beats him to a pulp, and gooses him with the dude’s own .357 Magnum. Then he takes him to the woods, ties him to a tree – the dude now a blubbering baby, devastated over the fact that someone caught him in the act of necrophilia(?!) – and proceeds to slice off his toes!! Once the dude has given up all he knows, namely that someone in Russia (we later learn it was Boris) ordered Doris’s death, Eagle slices his throat and then chastizes himself for “failing” this particular mission. He was supposed to meet Doris and hopefully have sex with her (seriously, this is the mission Samson tasked him with), but instead he found her dead.

Meanwhile we get a bit more information on what the hell is going on. It turns out Boris and Tchekov are plotting against the Soviet government, hoping to take over the entire regime. Their angle is a precious mineral recently discovered by a Soviet geologist in Afghanistan, which at this time was still on peaceable terms with the USSR. The mineral, named Kolymanite after its discoverer, is described in scientific briefs (printed in triplicate) as a “catalytic converter,” and when exposed to other metals and water it produces continuous electricity. As just one example of this incredible potential, were it to be mixed in with the hull of a nuclear sub, the sub would be powered for at least a year by just the Kolymanite and the seawater.

All of which provides the long leadup to John Eagle finally venturing over to the desert wilds of Afghanistan, a place which here in 1975 still has the mystical splendor of Arabian Nights and hasn’t descended into the ISIS hell of today. Eagle, who can apparently speak a few Arabic dialects, poses as a desert warrior in robes and veil, his plastic suit worn beneath, and rides a trusty camel over the desert wasteland in pursuit of some mysterious Russians (ie Boris and Tchekov) that Mr. Merlin has told him to contact. He ends up in the rugged expanse of the Hindu Kush, and the adventure fiction is very heavy and very reminiscent of #4: The Fist Of Fatima, which was written by Robert Lory.

Most of the middle portion of the text is just Eagle roughing it in the desert, his faithful and annoying servant in tow. This is Jinn, a prepubescent and cross-eyed waif who grew up in a whorehouse and rides around on a diseased camel. Stokes builds up such a “cute” rapport between the two, with Eagle as usual stoic and bossy and Jinn almost slavish in his cross-eyed devotion, that you can practically see Jinn’s fate coming from five miles away. And you won’t be disappointed. But anyway it just keeps going on and on, and you wonder if it will ever end, much like this review.

It seems to me that by this point in his life Stokes was more interested in the plotting and scheming of older characters than in any sort of heroic action fiction; he seems to get more enjoyment out of the ultimately-pointless digressions with Boris and Tchekov, not to mention lots of scenes of Merlin sitting overtop his volcano and talking to loyal secretary Polly Perkins. Eagle doesn’t do much of anything throughout, fires his trusty “gas pistol” but once, and doesn’t even wear his full plastic suit; this is a first in the series. Eagle merely wears it beneath his robes, but this is the first time in the series where Eagle doesn’t at some point pull on the mask as well.

Jinn tells Eagle of the mysterious Lala Khatun, “the green goddess,” who rules an army of multinational brigands in the remote Valley of Arjuna. The Lala Khatun line extends back a thousand years, from mother to daughter; “Shades of Rider Haggard,” Eagle thinks to himself. But we learn that Merlin hooked up with the 1916 edition of Lala Khatun, and indeed even has a photo of the lady locked up in his desk. Realizing Eagle is in the general location of Arjuna, Merlin sends out a radio message to her…and friends, given the usual all-padding writing method of Manning Lee Stokes, the titular “green goddess” (as Merlin refers to Lala Khatun) doesn’t even appear until page 156. 

Unfortunately, she isn’t really green; I had hopes for one of those Orion Slave Girls out of Star Trek. The “green” refers to the Earth and to fertility, as the Lala Khatun has sex with tons of men, getting pregnant again and again, the male babies exposed and left to die and only one female baby chosen to become the next green woman. The line suffers from Mayfly Syndrome, and the green women all die before 30. You won’t be surprised to learn that both Merlin and Eagle meet their respective green women before they’ve had any children, of course. I can’t imagine a woman that’s had child after child after child would be up to the high “hot chick in a pulp action novel” standards.

The novel’s sole action scene has Eagle, Boris, Tchekov, and Jinn defending themselves from bandits in a desert fortress. Eagle uses a .45 and a submachine gun for once. The pulpy gadget trappings of previous books is long gone; even later in the book, when Eagle pulls on his plastic suit (sans mask) and runs around a dark cemetery, Stokes goes on and on about Eagle worrying if he will be seen, as if Stokes has completely forgotten that Eagle’s suit has a chameleon unit which allows him to blend into his surroundings. But after this action scene we’re finally taken to the homestretch, as well as the appearance of the green goddess.

Who will be surprised when, upon her first meeting with Eagle, who has been bathed and separated from the others in posh accomodations, Lala Khatun announces her intention to screw Eagle silly? This current green woman is only nineteen but looks younger, with the body of a young girl – Stokes caters to the creepier ‘70s trend of having his hero screw a veritable teenager, something Eagle already did in a previous installment. After performing literal phallic worship upon Eagle, Lala Khatun gives herself to our hero, and Stokes as usual treads the line between metaphorical stuff and outright sleaze.

But man…forget about any thrilling conclusion. All plot threads clumsily come together and the denoument sees Boris and Tchekov escaping and Eagle trying to find them; poor Jinn is machine gunned down by accident. Eagle takes out the henchman of Lala Khatun’s sadistic top soldier – this top soldier, Major Akbar (not to be confused with Admiral Akbar), hates Eagle due to jealousy – and that’s that. There’s no resolution with the green woman and there isn’t even any resolution to Major Akbar’s animosity; I thought Eagle would at least break the guy’s neck, but Stokes flash-forwards a few weeks to Merlin’s HQ in Hawaii, where Tchekov is now staying.

The novel continues on its suspense/espionage vibe to the bitter end, with long backstory on the fact that Boris was really Merlin’s anonymous mole within the KGB, but he was secretly found out and Tchekov was put on his trail, in the hopes of discovering whoever was behind these would-be moles. Tchekov’s mission, you see, was to penetrate the headquarters of the mysterious “Merlin” and report back to the USSR. Stokes almost had me thinking that he was building a recurring plot here, with future volumes featuring Tchekov sneaking around Merlin’s place and snapping photos, but instead Samson shows up at Tchekov’s bed one night and blows him away with a .45. Finally, the end. 

Stokes tells the tale with his usual measured pacing; be prepared for a lot of padding via go-nowhere conversations among minor characters and lots and lots of narrative water-treading. But as I’ve said in like every review of a Stokes novel I’ve ever written, I enjoy the guy’s style nonetheless. An interesting note, back on the topic of Stokes’s age at the time, not to mention his impending fate, is the melancholy vibe of The Green Goddess, of time nearing its end. Merlin often relfects how “very old” he is, how he doesn’t have much time left. Even John Eagle, an assassin for hire, is prone to concern over the death of a loved one; Stokes makes a passing, vague mention of a “tumor in the left breast” of Eagle’s foster mother, White Deer.

And this is just the two main characters; a sort of foreboding and preoccupation with death runs throughout The Green Goddess. Given that Stokes’s next installment, Silverskull, was likely the last novel he ever wrote (and was also the last volume of the series itself), we’ll see if the theme continues.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hong Kong Incident (Mark Hood #3)

Hong Kong Incident, by James Dark
August, 1966  Signet Books

The third installment of Mark Hood continues with the real-world vibe of the previous two books; this series is more Sam Durell than Nick Carter. It seems to me that these ‘60s spy paperbacks were more so influenced by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels rather than the James Bond movies. In other words, the plots rarely if ever strayed into spy-fi, though eventually the Mark Hood books would head in that direction.

But as for Hong Kong Incident, it’s very much like one of Edward Aarons’s Sam Durrell novels, with that same gritty vibe; Hood’s weapon of choice is even a .38 revolver this time out. The novel takes place in Macao and Hong Kong, and James Dark (aka J.E. MacDonnell) captures the area with the verisimilitude of someone who has been there many times. Given that MacDonnell was a veteran seaman, operating out of Australia, I’d wager he was very familiar with the ports and dives of Southeast Asia.

The action opens in Macao, where Mark Hood is competing in the Grand Prix, breaking records in his red Ferrari. But he has to fake an oil problem when a secret call comes through on his headset. It’s from his mechanic, Tommy Tremayne, a slim British dude who, like Hood, is a member of Intertrust. Made up of the “four nuclear powers” (this time we’re informed it’s the US, USSR, France, and England), Intertrust works behind the scenes to avert any potential atomic holocaust. Tremayne and Hood have been sent to Hong Kong to bring over a defecting Chinese scientist.

Hong Kong Incident occurs over one day, and despite being tuckered out from racing all morning, Hood heads over to Hong Kong to meet the defecting scientist at the China border. This is Fan Fee Koy, who only gets out because a fellow scientist, also posing as a country bumpkin merely trying to cross the border for work, sacrifices himself to the machine gun-toting Chicom guards. The whole sequence with Koy plays out tautly, heavy on the suspense, as Hood is unsure if the man’s defection has been noted and if that car behind them is filled with armed Red Chinese spies.

Turns out it is, and a positively endless foot chase ensues…like 20-some pages of small, small print as Hood and Koy are separated and Hood tries to head off the two Chicom spies in the rural hinterlands of Hong Kong’s Kowloon district. Despite the inordinate length this sequence is still gripping, and again plays very much in that real-world vibe. Whereas the movie Bond would dispense with these two Chicom agents without a second thought, Hood instead undergoes a rigorous flight over the muddy, rain-strewn hinterlands (I forgot to mention the novel takes place as a typhoon is closing in on Hong Kong).

Action hasn’t been a focus for this series, so far, but when it happens it’s not bad: Hood engages the agents in a shootout in a shit-fertilized rice paddy and later gets in a brutal karate fight with one of them. Hood is a champion karate master but finds himself up against a practicioner of the dreaded kung-fu, which in James Dark’s mind gives a person almost supernatural martial arts abilities. This fight takes place in a cemetery and features a nicely gory finale in which Hood bashes the dude’s head into a stone urn, shattering it and spilling blood and brains everywhere. When Hood accidentally puts his hand in the brain splatter, he almost pukes.

The second half of Hong Kong Incident moves back into the suspense angle, with Hood reconnecting with Tremayne and trying in vain to find Fan Fee Koy, who was supposed to meet Hood in some Hong Kong dive. Hood and Tremayne have a good working relationship, with Tremayne doling out the British wit and Hood acting as the straight man; it appears that Tremayne appears in future volumes as well. Tremayne also deduces what’s behind Koy’s sudden desire to defect: Koy, an atomic scientist, has figured out that the Chicoms intend to destroy the US Seventh Fleet during the typhoon and blame it all on the North Vietnamese.

Once again Hood’s naval background comes into play, as he realizes that this could easily be accomplished via a lone sub with atomic torpedos, running down the destroyers in the fleet as they’re dispersed in the typhoon. But Koy hasn’t shown up in the dive so Hood can’t be sure if this is the intel the man had to give to Hood’s superiors. Instead Hood and Tremaye meet Karen, a hotstuff Chinese hooker who comes on strong. When Hood returns from checking another bar, Tremayne’s unconscious in a back room, a nude Karen standing over him for some reason, while meanwhile a burly Chinese dude is beating Tremayne to a pulp. 

More brutal karate action ensues; no brain-bursting this time, but Hood messes ‘em up real good. The lovely and nude Karen even receives a judo chop to the neck as she tries to escape, and Hood’s unsure if he killed her – and doesn’t really care. Hood is a mean bastard when he wants to be, and hates “the Commies” with as much passion as Richard Camellion. But rather than “pig farmers” he calls them “soulless bastards.” Anyway, he also discovers that they’ve killed poor ol’ Koy in the meantime, though after torturing one of Chicom agents Hood learns that Koy died of a heart attack before he could reveal anything. 

The finale plays out on that naval fiction tip that doesn’t do much for me. Hood discovers to his horror that the Seventh Fleet has left port, thus if there is a Chicom sub out there the hunt will be on, now that the typhoon is raging. Hood bullshits his way onto the sole destroyer still in port and, at great length, gets the acting captain, a man named Talbot, to believe that he, Hood, is a top-secret agent and that there’s a viable threat to the fleet under the waters. The taut suspense angle goes all the way to the finale, with the two men commanding the ship in the turmoiled waters, gradually realizing they are being chased by a sub and determining how to destroy it without starting WWIII.

Overall this was another entertaining installment, but again the paperback itself is deceptively slim. While Hong Kong Incident runs to around 120 pages, it’s got some super-small print. And again MacDonnell doesn’t shirk on his word count, with dense paragraphs filling each page. His style is similar to Manning Lee Stokes, very measured and staid, only with a little less of the padding.  But I have to say, in today’s harried world, I don’t mind the methodical pacing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Our Spacecraft Is Missing! (Hot Line #1)

Our Spacecraft Is Missing!, by Paul Richards
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Yet another series “produced” by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, Hot Line was also published by Award, who had met such success with Engel’s earlier series Nick Carter: Killmaster. But Hot Line clearly failed to strike a chord with readers, only amounting to three measly volumes over just as many years.

First of all, a big thanks to the essential Spy Guys and Gals website for the info on who wrote this series, as information is scant. According to that site, this first volume was a collaboration between George Snyder and Jon Messmann, two authors who around this time were also working for Engel on the Killmaster books. But if I had to guess, I’d say Snyder was more responsible for Our Spacecraft Is Missing!, given one key piece of evidence: the “hero” of the tale, secret agent Grant Fowler, is an asshole of the first order.

Snyder as we’ll recall excels at delivering assholic protagonists – the hero of his Operation Hang Ten series (another Engel joint) is a complete prick, as was Snyder’s version of Nick Carter in Moscow. So then Grant Fowler is cut from the same cloth: a bossy, arrogant, smart-assed loudmouth, and it would be one thing if the dude could back it all up, but honestly he proves himself to be a buffoon in Our Spacecraft Is Missing!, about as ineffectual a hero as you could get. Shit, the dude’s almost dead by the final pages, shot to pieces, and you couldn’t care less.

Anyway, Fowler’s bit is that he’s the top agent for the Presidential Service, not to be confused with the regular ol’ Secret Service. He answers directly to the president and is the man’s go-to guy for dangerous international missions. So in other words the series very much has that Lyle Kenyon Engel flavor, with the lone wolf-type reporting to the older, powerful male who sends him off around the world for this or that. The “Hot Line” of the series title is in reference to Fowler’s direct line to the president, courtesy his portable scrambler set, and Fowler also has another hot line: a special cigarette lighter which opens a direct audio channel link to the president. 

Only two other people know of Fowler: Margaret, the president’s motherly private secretary, and Secretary of State Mike Kremsky, who doesn’t get along with Folwer very well. (But then, not many people do.) Fowler himself is somewhere in his 30s and has a scar that runs from the center of his forehead down to his right eyebrow. He has a busy backstory of warfaring and adventuring, but came to the president’s attention two years ago, due to the action in Nigeria, where Fowler managed to drop a shipment of food on a children’s orphanage. Also here an injured Fowler tried to put the moves on an attractive redheaded nurse named Kelsey Bowen, but she turned him down. 

Fowler’s worked as the president’s troubleshooter for two years, but this current assignment is his biggest one yet: in a riff on the Bond film You Only Live Twice (which has nothing in common with the original Fleming novel, really), both US and Soviet spacecraft has been disappearing from the sky. Three US craft and three Russian craft have been apparently vaporized, and the countries are blaming each other – the Russians think the Americans are shooting down the Russian craft and lying that they’re also losing craft of their own. 

Fowler is tasked with finding out what the hell’s going on. After lots of research he ends up in the Australian outback, which is where he suspects the crafts were being shot down from. Many pages are given over to Fowler interviewing one-off characters. However Fowler is a complete ass throughout; there’s a laugh-out-loud moment where, when he first meets the scientists at a tracking station in Houston, he snaps at them for lying around and drinking coffee, when meanwhile they’ve been working several-hour shifts and are finally taking a well-deserved break.

While roaming about the outback Fowler bumps into a familiar face – would you believe Kelsey Bowen, the nurse he put the moves on two years ago? She’s carried a torch for Fowler ever since reading about that food-for-the-orphanage stunt he pulled in Nigeria, which she wasn’t aware of back then. But Fowler succeeds in pissing her off, too, particularly when he starts bossing around the young doctor she now works for as part of a sort of roaming doctor service for the outback – if someone here in the hinterlands gets hurt or sick, they make a call and then Kelsey and the doc hop on an airplane and head there. 

Many pages are given over to Fowler flying around with these two. Snyder is as ever unconcerned with much action, and when he does get around to it, it’s generally of the fistfight variety. Along the way Fowler keeps hassling Kelsey for sex…she apparently enjoys leading men on and then backing down, something for which Fowler calls her out in a scene that would make many readers uncomfortable in our current era. For after being shot at by an unseen assailant during a sandstorm in the outback, Fowler and Kelsey hole up in a remote shack and there Fowler basically forces the girl into having sex with him!

“All right! Take me! And make me love it!” The girl finally screams after Fowler has successfully bullied her for several pages; he’s not going to take no for answer like he did on that hospital bed in Nigeria way back when. The ensuin’ screwin’ is fairly explicit for the time, but nothing too major, though we get enough detail to know the lady does in fact enjoy it. Afterwards Fowler basically sees Kelsey off and gets on with the investigation. Turns out he winged his unseen assailant, due to the blood trails all over the place; Fowler’s gun by the way is a .357 Magnum, which he carries in a special shoulder holster. Surely there are better, more compact handguns for a secret agent?

Along the way Fowler’s also gotten in a fight with an “Oriental,” one Fowler suspects is a Red Chinese agent, but after a brutal fistfight the man takes a cyanide pill and kills himself, so there’s another lead that goes nowhere. There isn’t much action at all for the majority of the book; even after the shootout with the mystery man in the sandstorm, which turns out to be a muscular KGB agent, the book sort of plods along more so on a suspense angle. Fowler finds himself at the sprawling ranch of the Graftons, in the middle of the outback wasteland, a secretive place with armed guards.

The Graftons are Ebert and Annalise; the former reclusive and unseen by Fowler, the latter an ugly, mentally-retarded woman who takes an instant shine to Fowler and pleads with Ebert to let him stay, so she can have sex with him. Fowler leads the horse-faced girl along while Ebert’s out, and it’s all very hard to buy. Annalise practically just lets Fowler roam around the ranch, looking for clues. Anyway, he discovers a massive rocket, and deduces that Ebert Grafton is shooting down the spacecraft.

Ebert and Annalise are the children, Fowler learns, of Graf von Tohn, aka Count von Tohn, a Nazi sadist who fled to Australia after the war. “Graf” plus “Tohn” has become “Grafton,” and now son Ebert (the old count long since dead) plans to win the war that Hitler lost. Here in the final pages it all becomes, too late, like a Bond movie: Ebert, the mad genius, not only has a headquarters built in a mine shaft, but also has an army of aboriginies, “biochemical experiments” who will serve him as “an army of violent cannibals.” Where the hell have they been for the past 140 pages??

The “cannibal” nature is displayed posthaste, as the aboriginies eat the poor KGB agent, Fowler unable to stop them in time. Here in the final pages Fowler finally lets loose with his Magnum, shooting cannibals down left and right, but unfortunately Snyder isn’t one for the gory details. It’s more along the lines of “Fowler shot two of them down,” and such. The sendoff for Ebert is also pretty anticlimactic, with a perennially-incompetent Fowler just standing there while the madman rants and raves about how his latest rocket is certain to initiate WWIII. When Fowler finally acts it’s too late and the damn rocket is launched, headed for a fatal meeting with a manned Soviet craft. 

Fowler, gutshot and dying, by the way(!), forces himself into action and initiates a call to the president via his lighter gizmo. WWIII is averted and meanwhile Annalise sets herself on fire(!?). And Fowler is nearly dead, shot in the arm and the stomach in the course of the book, leaking blood badly. (Don’t worry, though; Kelsey shows up and gives him some “broth” to drink – some nursing skills she has, huh?)

Fowler must’ve been badly hurt, too, as it was another year until the second volume of the series was published. Let’s hope that one will be beter. But at least, at 156 pages of big print, Our Spacecraft Is Missing! is a quick read.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Storyteller

The Storyteller, by Harold Robbins
January, 1987  Pocket Books

A few years ago I reviewed an obscure paperback titled Rich Dreams, which was a roman a clef based on the sordid life of Harold Robbins. Robbins himself broke ties with the husband-and-wife authors of that novel, the Barzmans, and possibly planned legal action against them, given that they had apparently lifted their material from stories Robbins had told them about his past. Perhaps the main reason Robbins was pissed was because he was planning a “Harold Robbins-type” novel about himself. 

Unfortunately, The Storyteller was published long after Robbins’s star had faded. If it had been published even a decade before it might have been another massive bestseller. But Goodbye, Janette was the last Robbins novel to perform well, with Descent From Xanadu (still my favorite Robbins yet) not doing well and The Storyteller following suit. Robbins himself was having a rough time in his personal life as well, having suffered a stroke a few years before that left him incapacitated for a long stretch.

Even more unfortunately, The Storyteller doesn’t have much going for it, once again coming off as a tired and dispirited work from an author who doesn’t give a shit. The only thing salvaging it is the bizarre, raunchy sex that peppers the novel – actually, there aren’t so many “sex scenes” per se, but there’s a ton of off-the-wall dirty talk and general sordidness. The sex scenes themselves usually happen off-page, with Robbins leading up to them with lots of “let’s fuck” sort of dialog exchanges. But as for plot, characterization, theme, forget it. The novel is as shallow as a kiddie pool.

One thing that can be said for The Storyteller is it’s a damn quick read. I took this one with me on a cruise, and I managed to read about a hundred pages a day. And that’s with no skimming. The book runs 341 pages of large print, lots of dialog and white space, but as usual Robbins keeps the story moving. The guy, despite his faults, was a master of compelling narrative drive, which is a very odd thing because nothing really ever happens.

The novel features a prologue and epilogue narrated by Robbins’s stand-in for himself, Joe Crown, a mega-bestselling novelist. This opening and closing section is either set in 1985 (the year the novel was published in hardcover) or 1979, I’m not sure – there’s textual evidence it might be the latter, given that at the very end of the third-person portion of the novel the characters, in 1949, wonder where they will be in thirty years. Not that it much matters. The Joe Crown of these first-person sections doesn’t tell us much about himself and spends most of his time in a hospital bed, his leg broken in a car accident. From his bed he flashes back to his youth, and the novel begins.

It’s 1942 and Joe Kronowitz is 22 years old and makes his living writing luird puld fiction for Spicy Tales magazine as “Joe Crown.” To get this out of the way asap, do not go into this novel hoping for a peek into the pulp-writing biz of the 1940s. All we learn is that Joe has written a few stories about a nublile adventurer named Honey Darling who often gets her clothes lopped off by the swords of horny sheiks. But how the pulp business works and why got Joe into it is unexplored. Indeed, what exactly compels Joe to write is itself unexplored. If you are looking for a book that explores the mindset of a writer, forget that, too.

That is the biggest puzzler about The Storyteller. Joe Crown is such a cipher that you feel nothing for him, and he appears to care about writing about as much as Harold Robbins himself did. Like his creator, Joe is more of an accountant at heart, more concerned with investments and money. Why he writes, even what he writes, is glossed over. And for that, Joe is actually more of a screenwriter than a novelist. The novel occurs between 1942 and 1949, and during that time Joe writes several screenplays (we only get the plot for like one or two of them) and spends most of the time working on his first novel, which is apparently about his youth in Brooklyn.

Also adding to Joe’s cipher-like qualities is his dodging the WWII draft. His father, who co-owns a chicken shack in Brooklyn, uses his connections to get Joe out of service. Why doesn’t Joe want to serve his country and possibly kill Hitler? It’s not stated. In fact Joe is such a middling, disinterested character that you start to get annoyed with him. But as part of his draft-dodging Joe officially becomes “Joe Crown.” More focus is placed on his flirtatious relationship with first-cousin Motty, an (apparently?) cute young lady who has lived with Joe and his family since childhood.

Oh yeah, Joe Crown scores a helluva bunch in this novel, by the way. He sets the precedent for a Harold Robbins character in fact. The dude sleeps with so many women that you eventually lose track of them. Yet Joe never works for it, with women, even before he’s a famous screenwriter, basically offering themselves to him. One can clearly see The Storyteller almost being like some vicarious excercize for the old, stroke-ridden Harold Robbins of 1985, who fucks sundry women through his fictional stand-in.

Motty is engaged to Stevie, Joe’s older brother, a boring loser who is studying to become a doctor. Meanwhile Joe, as part of his deal with the mobsters who got him out of the war, runs drugs for a muscular black dude named Jamaica who lives with several black women, each of whom he calls “Lolita.” (One of ‘em treats Joe to a graphically-depicted blowjob, of course; in fact, “frenching,” ie oral sex, runs rampant in this particular novel.) Joe will become so used to dealing drugs that he’ll continue to do so even when he eventually moves to Hollywood, not that Robbins makes much of this subplot or even explains it. There’s an even-more-unexplored bit where Joe temporarily manages a whorehouse.

But then he lands a bigshot literary agent, the (apparently lovely) Laura Shelton, who sells a story Joe wrote (stealing the idea from a story Motty told him) about a store security guard who falls in love with a would-be shoplifter. Now Universal wants to make it into a film starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. Joe’s been hired to come to Hollywood to help write the script. Oh, and he’s gotten Motty pregnant after their first and only screw – Motty being a virgin, it’s a ten-pointer – and she’s fallen in love with him, so she’s coming along to Hollywood. 

The next section is set in 1945-1946 and Joe’s a veteran Hollywood screenwriter. He’s been fucking his way through the studio system, not that any of it is described or that he had to work for it. In Robbins’s world, these nymph starlets will actually have sex with even the screenwriter to get a job, which goes against the grain of one of Hollywood’s more infamous jokes (ie, these gals will screw anyone but the writer, because everyone knows writers don’t mean shit in Hollywood). Motty’s getting sick of Joe’s womanizing, and she’s falling in love with her boss, the owner of a JC Penney-style department chain. Oh and Joe and Motty now have a daughter who is so inconsequential to the novel that I didn’t even bother jotting down her name for future reference.

Joe gets a gig to write a script for Judi Antoine, the top pin-up model for his studio, Triple S (a sort of Warner Brothers analogue). Judi is known on the lot as “the Screamer” due to how noisy she is while screwing. (Even Joe had her, of course.) She can’t act so Joe comes up with ripping off one of his old Honey Darling tales – an interesting, unexplored tidbit here is that Joe mentions he’d have to be an “idiot” to tell the Hollywood boys that he used to write for the pulps. The movie is Warrior Queen of the Amazons and features a half-nude Judi and a bevy of similarly-unclad Amazons in the jungle; it will become a major hit.

But when Motty, who is having her own affair (and indeed is planning to leave Joe), comes home early from a business trip and finds Joe with his cock up the ass of Rosa, their strumpet of a 16-year-old live-in maid, she files for divorce. (Rosa for her part is a virgin, given to walking around in a transparent blouse with no underwear, and claims she enjoyed giving her father and brothers handjobs; just “a way of life” in her native Mexico!) Joe agrees to the divorce, only to discover that Motty is in fact already pregnant with the other dude’s child. He signs the papers and neither Motty nor Joe’s daughter are ever mentioned again.

We go into the final section in a long sequence set in 1949. Joe’s now in Rome, working for a De Laurentis-style film producer named Santini. Joe’s got a sexy black-Italian secretary named Marissa whom he has bunches of casual sex with (plus she enjoys DRINKING HIS PISS; see below). He’s also secretly getting some from Mara, the busty Bardot-esque superstar actress girlfriend of a Mafia dude. This section loses the entire “storyteller” aspect of the title, instead more focused on Joe’s life among the jet-set, in particular a long, raunchy sequence on the party yacht of the depraved Contessa, who switch-hits and likes to invite young women into her opulent room.

Oh but meanwhile Joe’s been long-carrying a torch for his agent, Laura Shelton, practically begging her to come be with him in Italy. For her part, Laura is more concerned with getting Joe to finish his book (an unintentionally humorous angle of the novel is that Joe is always being forced by other characters to write; he clearly has no interest in it himself, same as his creator). Also, Laura doesn’t want to become “just another girl” in Joe’s ultra-hectic sex life. As if! But after many misadventures with Marissa and Maria (and those two similar names don’t get confusing at all) Joe finally retreats to Cannes and gets Laura to come over to Europe and be with him.

After more partying with the Contessa (including a sickly bizarre part where the insatiable Contessa has Joe dip his fingers in cocaine and then ram them up her friggin’ womanhood), Joe finally scores with Laura, and they’re in love. They take a cruise back to New York, where Robbins quickly and perfunctorily wraps up the book via the “thematic” angle of Joe’s dad retiring to Florida, closing down his chicken place. But man Robbins misses so many balls this time out, with all these half-assed subplots he doesn’t bother to pay off, or when he does pay them off they’re subplots he forgot or neglected to even set up!

The final pages take us back to the first-person narrative of Joe himself (though Robbins slips in and out of the tense, sometimes writing “Joe” instead of “I”), where Joe Crown, now old and walking with a cane, enjoys the fruit of his labors, being awarded some “bestselling author of all time” prize or some such nonsense. Most importantly we learn here that Joe has been married since 1949 to Laura, so that worked out, however it’s intimated that this hasn’t stopped him from, of course, screwing a helluva bunch of other women in the ensuing decades. But we are to understand that Laura is his one true love; Robbins attempts to end the novel with one of his customary sentimental touches, but it falls flat this time. Really flat.

Harold Robbins was never considered a literary heavyweight, but his writing is even more amateurish and juvenile than ever in The Storyteller, with such blunders as:

“It’s an honor and pleasure to meet you, Mr. Crown,” the Italian said, in Italian-accented English.

The novel hardly has any flash or spark, and it’s overwhelmed by mundanity. Robbins rarely if ever describes any settings, locations, or even characters. I don’t think Joe himself is even described once; about the most we learn is that he’s well-hung, and even that isn’t mentioned until toward the end. Female characters rarely get descriptions of their features, hair color, or anything – even their bodies are seldom exploited, which should be mandatory in the trash fiction ethos. Of course we’ll get occasional mentions of “upthrusting breasts” and whatnot, but good lord, would it have been so hard to even tell us what some of these women even look like??

But hell, we read Harold Robbins for the naughty stuff. And as if this review isn’t long enough already, I’d like to finish off with a few sleazy treats taken from the pages of The Storyteller that made me laugh out loud. Seriously, brace yourself for the last one, which features the aforementioned urine-focused scene with Marissa:

“Don’t talk!” she said. “Just tear me apart and fuck me!” -- pg. 89

“Fantastic!” Her anus was as soft as a velvet glove. -- pg. 219

Suddenly she held him still. “Don’t move!” she ordered. 

He glanced up at her. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m starting to pee. Ooh,” she whispered ecstatically. “Now you do it inside me.” 

“I can’t pee through a hard on,” he said. 

“Yes, you can,” she said. “I’ll show you.” Quickly she placed a finger under his testicles and pressed a nerve. His urine came pouring forth like a spout. At the same moment, she took his phallus from her and lifted it still urinating onto her face and gulped as much of it as she could catch in her mouth. When the urine had stopped she replaced him instantly inside her. She moved her face close to him. “I love the taste of your pee,” she said. “It’s like sweet sugar.” -- pg. 258

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Hook #2: Sight Unseen

The Hook #2: Sight Unseen, by Brad Latham
September, 1981  Warner Books

William “The Hook” Lockwood returns for another caper, a few months after the previous volume (though published the same month); this one sees him going up against some Nazis who have stolen a top-secret experimental bombsight. It’s the late 1930s, America still considers Germany and Japan its allies, and Lockwood spends the whole novel disbelieving that America will get into another world war.

At 180 pages of small, small print, Sight Unseen just sort of drags on and on. Not that the first volume was a rollercoaster or anything, but still in comparison it was a lot more fun, what with the bizarre assortment of underworld types Lockwood interacted with. But this time the Hook’s purely in insurance investigator mode, dealing with Treasury Department agents (aka “T-men”), scientists, and most importantly a redheaded beauty.

Whereas the first novel traded off between lots of boring “investigation” stuff and super-hardcore porn, this one focuses more on the former and really tones down the latter. In fact there’s such a disparity between the explicitness of the sex scenes that I wondered if maybe some editor at Warner might’ve gotten freaked out by some of the stuff in The Gilded Canary Caper and asked the author to lessen the impact this time. Who knows. But sadly, that ultra-hardcore stuff was about the only enjoyable aspect of the previous novel, mostly because it was so crazy and so weird and most importantly because it jolted the reader out of the stupor he’d fallen into.

So while there’s some sex in Sight Unseen, particularly with the redhead, who turns out to be the head of research on the bombsight project and is named Myra Rodman, it’s nowhere as graphic as in the previous book. I believe this is so because Lockwood actually falls in love with Myra over the course of his investigation, which takes a few weeks; long parts of this book are like a romance novel, as Lockwood courts the beautiful young lady, taking her out to dinner and dancing and whatnot. But then later in the book, when also as part of his investigation, Lockwood sleeps with a hooker, this scene too isn’t very explicit, which again makes me suspect “Brad Latham” (supposedly David Schow) was asked to tone down the naughty stuff.

Anyway, Myra Rodman works for Northstar, a company in Long Island founded by Dr. Josef Dzeloski initially as a refrigerator manufacturing company, but due to (too long) backstory we learn the military eventually started using the company as a weapons contractor. Now Northstar has made a 500-pound bombsight, which is so top secret that Transatlantic, Lockwood’s employer, has insured the item without even knowing what it is. But the thing’s somehow been stolen out of Northstar’s windowless, single-entry plant in Long Island, and Lockwood must figure out if it was an inside job or if a foreign power stole it.

The novel is more of a private eye thriller than the previous book, with much of the narrative given over to Lockwood ambling around and interviewing this or that suspect. There’s Pops, the elderly guard who was on duty that night, Guy Manners, the engineer on the project, even Dzeloski himself. But as mentioned most importantly there’s Myra, who Lockwood starts falling for pronto. There are also several T-men afoot, a dude named Guy Manners in charge of them; he and Lockwood immediately get in a contentious relationship, but eventually Manners makes Lockwood a temporary Treasury agent to help with the investigation.

There’s no action at all – that is, unless you count the parts where Myra takes the train into New York City and goes out to the hottest restaurants and clubs with Lockwood. There’s a Casablanca riff going on, as Lockwood refuses to get involved with the anti-Nazi sentiment sweeping across “the liberals” of America; Myra is very political and is desperate for the US to step in and do something about Hitler and his legions, otherwise all of Europe will be engulfed in war. Lockwood starts to suspect the lovely lady is correct, particularly when he comes across the intel that some Germans might’ve stolen the bombsight.

In addition to fighting with Manners, Lockwood also periodically argues with his boss at Transatlantic, Mr. Gray , who demands that Lockwood find the bombsight so TA doesn’t have to pay. Lockwood mostly uses his underworld contacts to find out where the bombsight might’ve been spirited away to, but every time we think there’s about to be an action scene, like when Lockwood and friends sneak up on a warehouse, it fizzles out, with the place being empty. There’s only one action scene in the book, really, and that’s later when Lockwood leads some junior T-men on an ambush of a Nazi hideout, but it’s over quick, and Lockwood even gets shot.

Another too-long sequence has Lockwood investigating the German girlfriend of Heatherton, a secret Treasury agent who poses as a Nazi. This lady throws herself at Lockwood, but he turns her down, caught up in his growing love for Myra. After all, he’s already feeling guilty for having screwed a hooker named Barbara Wilson, a suspected Nazi spy, earlier in the novel, all so as to secretly get some info out of her as part of the investigation. Yes, Lockwood is totally in love with Myra, even thinking what it will be like to marry her and to begin “a new adventure” in his life, with kids!

So my friends, I think it’s plainly obvious what fate is in store for poor Myra Rodman. What action reader will be surprised when, just a few paragraphs after thinking about having children with her, Lockwood discovers Myra’s corpse? It’s such an expected “shocking moment” that you have to laugh out loud. What makes it all the more humorous is that, other than a burning desire for revenge, Lockwood doesn’t act much different afterward; he isn’t too heartbroken or devastated. Of course, the novel ramps up to the finale within the next twenty or so pages, but I’m betting Lockwood will barely even recall Myra by the next volume.

For the finale, Lockwood impersonates an American Nazi and goes out to a U-Boat that’s docked off New York to get the bombsight. Even here the author tends more to dialog and suspense, with Lockwood planting an explosive and hightailing it out of there before she blows. Lockwood himself takes some damage this time, getting shot in the novel’s sole gunfight and having to recuperate in the hospital. He rarely busts out the boxing moves which gave him his nickname, only at one point using his famous “hook” on an old man who turns out to have been Myra’s assassin – but since the guy was only following orders and gives Lockwood the desired info, Lockwood lets him live(!?).

Anyway, Sight Unseen wasn’t too great. It was boring, padded to the extreme, and suffered from the diluted naughtiness – the previous volume was boring, too, but at least it had crazy, Harold Robbins-esque moments of sleaze to sporadically liven things up.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Bunnies (Peter Trees #1)

The Bunnies, by John Q.
July, 1965  Avon Books

Billed as a “super-agent” on the cover, Peter Trees was yet another in the long line of would-be Bonds who followed in the wake of Ian Fleming’s death in 1964; in fact, according to a 1965 interview with creator/writer John Quirk in the Palm Beach Post (which unfortunately is no longer online – thanks a lot, Google Books!), the character was specifically devised to fill the void created in the realm of pulp spy fiction by Fleming’s death.

The only problem is, whereas Fleming, when he was on form, was capable of delivering a thrilling tale, John Quirk, at least in this first volume, turns out a total snoozer of a book, about as exciting as the average episode of Antiques Roadshow. The guy can write, though, with clever dialog and good scene-setting, but the plot is uninvolving and the characters are unlikable. You do have to love though how Quirk (branded as “John Q.” on this and the second volume, but the book’s copyright John Quirk) poses as his hero on the back cover, complete with flight suit and helmet.

Also according to that above-mentioned interview, Quirk’s original title for this one was The Black Box, which turns out to be a contraption hero Peter Trees spends the entire novel seeking. Likely Avon changed the title to The Bunnies to capitalize on the Playboy Bunnies Trees encounters at the Detroit Playboy Club, though the cover artist didn’t really capture that – you’d never guess the attractive, half-nude black lady on the lover left corner is supposed to be a Playboy Bunny. She doesn’t even have on the bunny ears! But she does appear in the book, where she is referred to as, believe it or not, “the Chocolate Bunny.”

Anyway, Colonel Peter Trees is a hotshot jet fighter pilot, I believe a WWII vet, who is a millionaire himself but serves as the personal pilot for a billionaire named Michael Archangeli. Trees is quite idealized and in many ways this series is like the later Don Miles, just replacing race cars with fighter jets. Trees has a Crusader jet which he bought from a general in a south Asian war; Trees used to fight periodically in anti-Commie wars, which is where he was serving when approached by Archangeli. This is all relayed via backstory; when The Bunnies begins, Trees has been working with Archangeli so long that he’s basically assumed control of the man’s business empire.

The book is less focused on action and more concerned with “business talk.” Over half of the novel is composed of mundane business meetings and recaps, very similar to the page-filling stuff in Harold Robbins’s  The Betsy and The Adventurers. Trees likes to sit around with Archangeli, “Count” Colombo (Archangeli’s chaffeur), and Arnold Stillwater (head of the Markel Division, a family business he just sold to Archangeli), and “talk business.” But most prominent in these conversations is Jo Court, sexy young secretary for Archangeli and a determined woman decades ahead of her time.

Jo Court must have seemed interesting to readers in 1965, but today she’s as common as bread: a woman who puts work over marriage, career over love, and is determined to prove her worth. She has a contentious relationship with Trees, smarting off to him from first page to last. She was being groomed as Archangeli’s successor, it develops, and thus resents Trees for taking the spotlight from her. I lost track of the number of times these two would politely spat with one another – “Mr. Trees” and “Ms. Court” is icily repeated ad naseum throughout the text, as this was all before the days of first-name-basis in the workplace – and it gets old quick.

Quirk I believe was a WWII vet, so it’s interesting how this guy was able to create such a forward-thinking character in Jo Court…but then he has to go and ruin it with the revelation that Jo’s screwing Mr. Archangeli as part of her job. She even comes on to Trees after another of their periodic spats, though Trees turns her down.

As for Trees, he’s kind of an ass. Very much the straight-jawed, humorless, buzzcutted military man demanded by postwar fiction, there isn’t much likable about the dude. While he spends the majority of The Bunnies in “investigator” mode, he is in fact a spy, something Archangeli doesn’t even know. Reporting to the mysterious Program Committee, Trees’s boss is a dude named Broderick Whitehead but Trees usually answers to the President himself. Not that any of that matters this time, as, rather than a tale of international intrigue, Trees gets involved in a case that’s more along the lines something Mike Hammer would deal with.

As part of his own corporate maneuvering Trees has gotten in touch with a dude named William Bottle, who has designed this “fuel injector” gizmo. Be prepared for lots and lots of expository dialog explaining and describing this thing, which hasn’t even been built – Bottle, who was supposed to meet Trees and Archangeli for the first time in Detroit, turns up dead, and now Trees is on the hunt for the “black box” which apparently contained Bottle’s prototype model of the gizmo. But Trees suspects foul play, as his Crusader jet was sabotaged on the flight into Detroit and it was only his bad-assery which prevented a crash.

The novel plods along as Trees follows clues in the search for who Bottle was, what his fuel injector gizmo was, and who else might’ve wanted it, while trading barbs with Jo Court. Gradually he comes upon a clue about “the chocolate bunny,” which as mentioned turns out to be a black Playboy Bunny named Kelly O’Brien, who knows more about the case than she first admits. Trees also becomes involved with another Bunny, this one named Norah Huddle, who initially is hired by goons to pretend to be someone else so as to fool him.

Trees per tradition is a world-class lover of the ladies, by the way, but don’t expect much naughty stuff. He scores a few times in the book – with Norah Huddle, even with Bottle’s widow (a man-eating cougar who hasn’t seen her husband for years) – but John Quirk isn’t one for the details. Instead he just ends the chapter right as Trees is about to score and then picks up the story the next morning or whatnot. The same goes for the violence, with Trees taking some punishment via torture and also killing a few people with his throwing blade or magnum revolver, but none of it is very descriptive and certainly not graphic.

You see, Trees is bland, so trained and precise as to be robotic, and this blandness unfortunately bleeds over to the narrative style itself. There’s some interesting stuff, like how Trees suffers from PTSD thanks to briefly being a prisoner of the Viet Cong, but the novel is more about Trees the alpha male and his smart business moves and smart business strategy. I had a hard time engaging with this particular hero; he seemed more like one of the humorless WWII vets who used to congregate in my dad’s barbershop when I was a kid and talk about how we should bomb Japan again.

But while I didn’t like the slow-moving plot, which as mentioned is more along the lines of a murder-mystery than spy action, it must be said again that Quirk is a good writer. He peppers The Bunnies with many memorable dialog exchanges, like for example Archangeli’s comment to Trees when he comes to south Asia to hire him: “Patriotism is a laudable immaturity.” In fact Archangeli talks like this throughout, like a Bond supervillain, and he’s more interesting than Trees himself.

Anyway, two more volumes were to follow; in that interview above Quirk mentions he was in the process of writing the third volume, so I’m curious if he just didn’t write anymore due to low sales. The third volume not only had a completely different cover treatment than the first two but was also published by Signet, so I’m assuming the Peter Trees novels didn’t perform very well. At any rate Quirk himself died in 1969, so no further novels would be forthcoming anyway.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Justin Perry: The Assassin #2: Vatican Kill

Justin Perry: The Assassin #2: Vatican Kill, by John D. Revere
October, 1983  Pinnacle Books

Just as twisted as the other books in the series, Vatican Kill is another disturbed, bizarre-o installment of Justin Perry: The Assassin, courtesy Hal “John D. Revere” Bennett, and once again I’m certain this series was some sort of experiment on the part of the author. But what exactly he was trying to prove with the experiment is anyone’s guess – personally, I think it was his attempt at sort of pulling the rug out from beneath the traditional square-jawed/white American hero edifice of action pulp, but who knows.

Because regardless, this series is fucked up to the core. This is displayed posthaste, as a mutilated scientist, having defected from evil terrorist organization SADIF, briefs the CIA in the opening pages on his former organization’s latest gambit. SADIF has armed a space rocket with a thermonculear warhead and aimed it for the planet Venus as a sign of their superiority…and also as a way to draw in new converts(!?). The scientist has defected as he is certain this warhead will cause the destruction of the galaxy. In his escape he was mauled by dogs, who also bit off his testicles – as ever it all comes down to the groin in the world of Justin Perry.

And speaking of our hero, a page or two later and Justin Perry is covered in cow shit, secretly watching as a former Nazi now posing as a Vatican City gardner is being bathed by a nun with a “prominent harelip.” The Nazi is Carl Werner, and he’s taken over the gardner position from none other than Joseph Mengele, infamous Nazi sadist who has been hiding here in the Vatican for decades, controlling the Italian division of SADIF. But Mengele’s too sick and has absconded to Paraguay (which, strangely enough, is where the real Mengele died…though in 1979), and now Werner, who was still a teenager when WWII ended, has assumed his command post.

Werner it gradually develops is runing “Project New Fire” (as the SADIF Venus warhead plot is called) from the Vatican. Justin scraps his assassination attempt when Werner is suddenly called away. Justin washes off the cow shit, appropriates a priest’s garb, and then heads outside the Vatican…where he’s picked up by a horny young Italian girl(?!). Her name is Angelica Montessori and she is a virgin, she announces. She needs Justin, whom she believes is a priest due to his appropriated clothing, for an experiment she wishes to try. So the two walk around Rome all afternoon, Werner and the rocket to Venus totally forgotten, before they go back to a hotel.

There Angelica strips Justin and then gets nude herself, but she makes Justin promise he won’t touch her. We’re treated to her long backstory, during which Justin keeps arbitrarily flashing back to when he was twelve years old and was sent to India by his military bigwig father. There young Justin had his first sexual encounter, with Mrs. Blossom Reed, the fat wife of one of his father’s subordinates in the army. Angelica brings Justin back to the present with a quick blowjob and then Bruno, proprietor of the hotel, storms in, saying Justin was supposed to die; Justin kills him, feels woozy, realizes the wine he’s been drinking was drugged. Angelica tells Justin it’s a trap but she’s “fallen in love” with him and begs him to flee.

It’s not weird enough yet, so then the door bangs open and in storms the “harelipped nun” from earlier, as well as a young German boy who is apparently Carl Werner’s prize possession, and wouldn’t you believe it none other than Blossom Reed, aka “Mrs. Reed,” aka the lady Justin was just thinking of for no reason, who has “lost a lot of weight” in the ensuing decades and who keeps screaming that Justin must be captured. But Justin runs away, escaping nude into the streets of Rome, before he passes out due to the drug, his last conscious image that of Mrs. Reed towering over him and hitting him with a broom.

Oh but meanwhile, all this is actually going according to plan – the “Old Man,” ie Justin’s CIA boss, has planned for all of this with his usual inhuman foresight. SADIF was aware of Justin all along, and thus had Angelica, forced into SADIF servitude, there waiting for him, but the Old Man’s plan was for it to appear that Justin was not aware that he’d already been made…or something.

The book you see is more focused on theological debates, particularly Justin’s own struggling with the concept of a “benevolent” god, which he thinks is an impossibilty. Throughout the novel he flashes back to his youth, particularly an instance in India where he saw a train conductor derail his train, casting himself and about a thousand passengers into an abyss, all so as to avoid hitting a sacred cow that was standing on the train tracks. Cows also thus play an important part in Vatican Kill, particularly cow dung, which is mentioned again and again, as well as Justin’s penchant for running around in shit. We also get frequent flashbacks to a strange incident in Justin’s youth in which his mother made him dress up like Donald Duck(!).

What I’m trying to say, friends, is that this is still one fucked up series, so damned weird that you start to worry about the author’s mental health. While it’s well-written – Hal Bennet is if anything a gifted word-spinner – it’s just so weird, so obsessed with bizarre and unsettling imagery. Characters will be talking and Justin’s mind will trail off and we’ll get these long, morbid digressions on death, complete with more disturbed imagery like an army of crows feasting on those train-passenger corpses back in India.

Mrs. Reed you won’t be surprised to learn is also a SADIF agent – as in the previous volume, it appears that every single person in Justin’s life has been a secret SADIF agent, preparing him from birth for some bizarre reason. The final volume revealed this reason – that Justin was intended to sow future generations after civilization was wiped out by Halley’s Comet – but for reasons I still haven’t figured out SADIF was dropped from the final volume and the main villains were revealed as “the Halley Society,” which doesn’t even exist in these early volumes. SADIF is Justin’s version of SPECTRE, not the Halley Society.

But as mentioned the Old Man (himself outed as the head of the Halley Society in that final volume) is like thirty steps ahead, so we learn in flashback that all this has been planned for. So when Carl Werner tells Justin that if Justin assassinates the king and queen of Spain(?!), the Venus rocket will be destroyed via remote control, Justin agrees to do it, having known all along that this is exactly what Werner would demand of him. Justin’s only request is that his CIA pal Bob Dante, returning from the previous volume, be allowed to go along with him. Werner consents to this. So Justin travels with Mrs. Reed and Bob Dante to Spain, where Justin carries out the assassination…only, in one of the novel’s few clever touches, it’s actually a pair of SADIF agents that Dante has captured and brainwashed off-page.

But wait – I forgot all about the part where Justin’s first captured by Carl Werner and stripped nude and then thrown in with a pack of rabid dogs, and the crazed, ferocious look in their eyes, coupled with his random flashbacks about that train wreck in India and those vultures gorging on the corpses, results in Justin getting a whopper of a hard-on, which he clutches desperately while he fights the dogs to death!! And then when he wakes up he’s greeted with a blowjob courtesy Mrs. Reed, or “taking his milk” as she always put it when he was twelve years old…and then later he takes Angelica’s virginity, after which she’s basically dropped from the narrative until the very end.

And I totally forgot to mention the part where Carl Werner, as some sort of message, ties the “harelipped nun” (who turns out to be Angelica’s aunt) to a big poplar tree, the top half of which is pinned to the ground, and then cuts the lashes loose so the poor nun is nearly decapitated by the thrashing tree as it flings back to its normal position.

But anyway, Justin kills the pseudo king and queen of Spain, fooling Mrs. Reed and thus SADIF, however it was just a lie…she happily reveals that the “New Fire” rocket’s real intention is to impact with the nuclear missile which the US has launched to stop the SADIF rocket; when the two rockets collide there in deep space, the resulting thermonuclear explosion will knock out communication in the west for several hours, during which SADIF will take over the world, or something. But forget that, the regicide has Mrs. Reed all hot and bothered, and here she is with these two good-looking young CIA studs, so what’s an old lady to do…

The sex, while frequent and, really, making up the core of the novel and the actions of the characters, isn’t very explicit. In fact it’s more off-putting than anything. The only “normal” sex scene is where Justin takes Angelica’s virginity, but it isn’t very detailed…more focus is placed on the sordid engagements, like when Justin and Bob Dante double-team Mrs. Reed, which Justin thinks to himself afterwards was like “fucking a bucket of guts”!! Bennett as usual excels in making the erotic disgusting, particularly when Justin peers at ol’ Mrs. Reed’s nether region and thinks that it looks like a bunch of ashes…

Yeah, man, this is one sick series. I should mention the novel ends with Carl Werner being fooled into thinking he’s going over to the CIA, but instead they’re just setting him up for a grand kill – Justin’s mission you see is to give Carl Werner a spectacularly gruesome death, so he spends the novel wondering what he’ll do (that is, when he isn’t thinking about that train crash or the vultures feeding on the corpses or the questionable reality of a “benevolent God”). So what he does end up doing is crucifying a nude Werner upside down, and then a CIA doctor cuts off the Nazi’s dick, stuffs it in Werner’s mouth and sews his lips shut, all while Werner has been dosed with “excitol,” an experimental drug which prevents him from fainting, so that he is super-aware of his misery until he finally dies.

I mentioned this is a twisted series, didn’t I?

Once again Hal Bennett isn’t much concerned with action scenes, nor realistic detail; Justin again uses a .38 revolver that both has a safety and can be equipped with a silencer. There’s hardly any action at all in the entire novel, and what passes for the climax has Justin and Bob Dante, suited up in one-piece black commando suits like the one Justin wore in the previous book, ambushing Werner and his SADIF agents in the caverns beneath Rome. But it’s all pretty dumb, as they just make all the SADIF freaks gather together in a dank well after shooting one or two of them. As usual, more focus is placed on twisted imagery and bizarre thoughts rather than action or thrills.

So anyway, Vatican Kill is strange, off-putting, slow-paced, and yet still well-written, and really just seems to come from some bizarre alternate reality.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Bright Blue Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #30)

The Bright Blue Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

This was a pretty good installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster, occasionally as over-the-top as The Sea Trap and Deep Sea Death while at other times maintaining the realistic vibe of Blood Raid. In this one Nick Carter must contend with laser forcefields, blue corpses, an army of neo-Nazis…and an unfrozen Viking warrior!

Nicholas Browne wrote The Bright Blue Death, and it was the last of the four Killmaster novels he authored. I’ve already picked up two more of his contributions and I look forward to reading them – the dude isn’t bad, though to be honest there were some awkward sentences at times that had me re-reading certain parts of the narrative to figure out what was going on. Also he jumps character perspectives without warning the reader, but that’s par for the course for the men’s adventure genre so it’s to be expected. On the other hand, Browne definitely has a way with setting up scenes and describing locations.

This is displayed posthaste, with an effective opening of Nick Carter scuba diving in the cold dark waters of Sweden, a junior AXE agent in tow. Their mission is to infiltrate the Musko complex, an underground fortress built on an “island of granite” by the Swedes as a sort of underworld bunker in the event of nuclear war. The Red Chinese are supposedly working on laser beams that could cut through all the granite, and AXE is concerned that, if successful, these lasers could eventually cut through the mountains that contain NORAD. Nick’s job is to see if Musko is truly impregnable. 

Things get nicely psychedelic as Nick, diving deep to get below the submarine netting, experiences delirium caused by the dramatic depths. He fights out of his bizarre visions, but the junior AXE agent doesn’t fare as well, going nuts and pulling off his oxygen tank. Nick gives the poor bastard up for dead. He goes on to infiltrate the place, but discovers that another squad has beaten him to it: not Chinese, as Nick expected, but a group of Germans. Nick kills most of them in silent warfare; eventually he’ll learn they are the Teutonic Knights, apparently the vassals of a modern Hitler named Count von Stadee, who plans to take over both Germanys…and then the world.

Meanwhile we’re introduced to this volume’s “Carter Chick:” Astrid Lundgren, the head of Musko’s Engineering and Planning. She’s in charge of working on various high-tech defenses to the Chicom lasers, but there’s a secret drawback: all of the scientists who work on the defense tech are dying, and their corpses are a bright blue. While this element gives the novel its title, it’s actually kind of buried in the narrative, and not nearly as important as you’d expect. Instead, the greater portion of the novel is given over to Nick posing as a German mercenary who tries to join the Teutonic Knights, offering Astrid as barter – von Stadee wants the beautiful, blonde “ice goddess” so as to prevent her from success with the Musko defenses.

Astrid quickly denies Nick’s amorous advances, but she leaves him salivating over her awesome bod and big ol’ boobs; the lady’s apparently one of the best-looking women Nick’s ever seen, and he’s seen quite a few. But after a long action scene in Copenhagen she begins to warm up to him. This develops once Nick, in disguise, meets with von Stadee, offering Astrid; he’s sure von Stadee will try to kill him, and he does, the action scene playing out in an amusement park. It kind of keeps going, from Nick and Astrid hiding on a sort of merry-go-round to Nick fighting off Loki, von Stadee’s insane dwarf henchman.

Meanwhile von Stadee, who was barely out of his teens when the Nazis ruled Germany, has another henchman: Einar, a thousand-year-old Viking! This mountain of muscle was thawed out by von Stadee after the war; the Nazis found a group of frozen Vikings and Einar was the only one von Stadee was successfully able to revive. Humorously, all of this is just casually dropped into the narrative, and Nick doesn’t even seem much fazed by it. Instead he’s more concerned about Einar’s inhuman strength.

Astrid’s sent back to Sweden Nick’s able to get into the Teutonic Knights by kidnapping someone close to von Standee – the neo-Nazi’s girlfriend, an American biker chick named Boots Delaney. Nick kidnaps the petite gal and takes her back to a cabin in the woods of Denmark. Boots is an interesting character, a total hellion who keeps trying to kill Nick with a vast assortment of hidden weapons. Meanwhile she’s getting randy, given the fact that von Stadee doesn’t have sex with her – he just uses her to whip him! Eventually Boots is nude, coming at Nick with a fireplace poker, and the unstated challenge is there: disarm her and she will be his.

Of course this is what happens, and Browne is fairly explicit in the ensuing scene (though nothing too crazy), with mention of “multiple positions” demanded by the insatiable Boots. Von Stadee concedes to Nick’s demands and allows him to join the Teutonic Knights for returning Boots. Now in von Stadee’s castle in Bavaria, Nick has to go through various boring ideals which consume too many pages, like an endless fistfight with a neo-Nazi champion. Shortly thereafter he discovers, through a fluke, that the “bright blue death” is nothing but a hoax, something von Stadee cooked up to keep the Swedes from working on their Musko defenses.

We get another endless sequence, this time as Nick escapes across Bavaria for the border, von Stadee’s men after him. Most Germans are loyal to the Teutonic Knights order, in what is intended as a parallel with Germany in the late 1930s but comes off as too goofy, so Nick has to run from regular citizens as well. At least it climaxes in a memorable sequence, as Nick’s on a barge having a long-denied meal, and a dirigible flies over the boat and an assault squad jumps out, Boots Delaney, in a mask and a leather catsuit, leading it. Nick’s captured but breaks out Pierre, his gas bomb, killing everyone except Boots, who parachutes out after him and promptly disappears from the narrative. (She mails Nick a bomb at the end of the book, but he laughs off her amateurish attempt at assassination.)

The Bright Blue Death rolls into the final quarter with Nick and Astrid together again; she travels down to Bavaria with him to infiltrate von Stadee’s castle and look at his scientific blueprints to see where exactly he is with the laser he’s building for the Chicoms. Meanwhile Astrid’s decided she wants to do Nick, after all. Cue another sex scene, this one taking place in the cheap showiness of nature as the two hide in the woods surrounding the castle, but this one goes more for the lyrical/metaphorical vibe. And right on cue Astrid gets captured and Nick has to go back and save her.

Browne’s action scenes lack much verve or violence, though we do get a memorable part where Nick blows someone’s head off with his Luger. He engages Einar in a too-quick fight, but the revived Viking wants to die. From there we jump to Greenland, where von Stadee apparently has his secret headquarters(?!). Nick and an Eskimo named Joe Shu travel through the ice on a Sno-Cat and Joe blasts the icy caverns the Teutonic Knights hide in with a flamethrower. In the climax von Stadee shows his cowardly roots and Joe Shu chops off the head of Loki, von Stadee’s annoying dwarf henchman – and then Nick heads back to Musko for more adult shenanigans with Astrid.

As mentioned, this was the last installment written by Nicholas Browne, who turned in four volumes between 1966 and 1967. Too bad, as he proves himself to be one of the better Killmaster authors. Browne himself appears to have been an interesting person. From Will Murray’s article “The Saga of Nick Carter: Killmaster,” published in The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982):

[Nicholas Browne] did four Nicks and then vanished. It turned out he was a merchant seaman and presumably had sailed for distant points. His Nicks may constitute all his published writing, and many of them had to be extensively revised by the Engels [ie series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel and his wife].

Vanished after sailing for distant points…creepy! Sounds like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. What makes it even stranger is the melancholy vibe of The Bright Blue Death. There’s a foreboding air to the novel, with Nick often reflecting over how he won’t live long, how his days are numbered. Coupled with Browne’s apparent disappearance, it’s kind of eerie.